How did NASA Spacecraft Pilots Confront Machine Automation ?

U.S. space expeditions had often faced the same question: should spacecraft be fully automated, or should pilots keep some control?

With the famous Apollo Missions, NASA decision-makers’ choice was first to automate the Lunar Space Module for the sake of reliability. But as pilots’ discontent was growing, they also decided to keep them in the loop for manual interventions in the face of mission uncertainty.

According to David A. Mindell in Digital Apollo, these two visions — engineers maximizing reliability and pilots defending their role — have defined the place of humans in airspace automated systems until today.

Here’s what the history of space missions teaches us about the future of our jobs.


Drivers vs. airmen

Wright Brothers advocated for the primacy of pilot skills
Wright Brothers advocated for the primacy of pilot skills

Since the beginning of the aviation industry, designers of flying machines have been divided between two very different views on control systems. 

In one side, aircraft engineers have advocated the “driver” concept, which is to believe in the natural stability of aircraft. They assumed a well-designed airplane can fly by its own abilities and with little assistance from a pilot. 

In the other side, “airmen” advocates have insisted on the essential role of the pilot to fly the plane to its destination. The Wights brothers, for example, had in mind an airplane that was naturally unstable, and that depended entirely on the training and talent of its pilot.

But while the early days favored easily flyable design, the invention of many flight instruments later favored more stable and engineered aircraft. As flights became longer and crowder, pilots needed to rely on accurate tools to guide them, especially in low-visibility environments. And altimeters, horizon indicator interfaces and gyroscopes brought scientific precision to the art of flying. 

After the second world war, jet or supersonic aircraft forced the need of test pilots who prevented technical problems, but also led to electronic stabilization systems. The pilots expressed their doubts and distrust towards these devices as unpredictable “black boxes”. Nobody could know what those automated guidance system were really made of. They eventually accepted them by necessity and recognize the need of guiding assistance.

These differences of views also appeared in aerospace engineering. The federal agency NACA embarked in the 1950s on a quest for space flight with the X-15, a rocket propelled and controlled by a human pilot. The prowess of successive pilots on mission after mission proved to the organization the importance of human control in conducting space operations. 

But as NACA evolved into NASA, a German engineer hired by the Americans, Wernher von Braun, brought his expertise in guided missiles to prove that human control was not as desirable as it seemed.


Adding automation to NASA spacecrafts

Gemini VII pilots that experimented new flying skills
Gemini VII pilots that experimented new flying skills 

In 1958, NASA was given the task of returning a human to orbit for the first time as part of project Mercury. The firepower required and the intensity of the G-forces felt by the rocket occupants imposed a new vision of human-machine collaboration. Newly appointed, Von Braun’s vision took over, adding control loops that automatically lead the aircraft to its destination.

As a result, astronauts became the simple captain of an autonomous flying machine, only intervening when the machine deviated from its objective. Still, they could direct certain parameters of the aircraft, turn on or abort a maneuver, in what was called “fly-by-wire” mode

The successor project, Gemini, gave more control to the pilots, by allowing them to easily override the automatic mode. Pilots of Gemini could perform all sorts of maneuvers, processing reentry phase manually and even attempting to rendezvous with distant aircrafts. But this last operation finally proved to be inadequate to the abilities of the pilots, requiring to master completely new physical forces.

Gemini IV pilot learned for example that orbit dynamic brought new challenges in terms of speed and velocity, to simply operate by visual cues. Driving in space required automated steering systems. This is what NASA would remember when they launched the famous Apollo program with a digital computer central to their mission.


The story of the computer-manned lunar landings

Neil Armstrong confronting Apollo Guidance System
Neil Armstrong confronting Apollo Guidance System

The Apollo project followed the Gemini project, but with a much greater ambition dictated by Kennedy’s speech in 1961: to put men in orbit on the moon, then to land them on its surface. 

But such a challenge posed many questions : how to keep for example the trajectory of the spacecraft constant during such a long journey ? And how to succeed in the delicate operation of the lunar landing, which required precise retrofire and positioning maneuvers ? The answer of the NASA engineers and of the MIT researchers hired for this task was to develop a digital guidance computer. It would calculate in real time the position and controls the trajectory of the spacecraft. In addition to saving space and fuel consumption, this computing power made it possible to automate many operations inaccessible to the pilot.

To overcome the defects and noise of the first on-board digital computer, NASA decided to add two more astronauts to improve the redundancy of the software and recalibrate its actions. Their goal was to monitor the system, to initiate and verify mode changes, and to confirm the trajectories decided notably during the landing by their own eyes and hands. Their work was especially important when errors and bugs emerge, which needed them to rewrite the program following communications from ground stations.

Thus, Apollo 8 saw the success of an automatically-driven spacecraft going into orbit. Only an error of coding tarnished the picture, needing the engineers to send new commands from earth (which was caused by poor planned procedures). 

The operation of the lunar landing especially needed a close collaboration between human and machines in three procedures. First, the engine had to keep an optimal level of propulsion, to land the module gently on the surface of the moon. Then, the lunar landing radar had to be able to send and bounce signals on the surface to locate the module in its descent and define its speed. Finally, someone had to point the antennas correctly while avoiding noise, to keep communication with earth.

The computer was managing all these instruments, but a human astronaut was still in charge of checking the descent and landing operations, while another astronaut checked the calculations and numbers produced by the computer. As the trajectory of the module was never perfectly predictable, the commander had to redesignate also the landing point and drive manually the last hundreds of meters of descent. If the situation made the success of the mission impossible, the astronauts also had the choice to abort the operation to go back.

Neil Armstrong and his partner Buzz Aldrin faced for example troubling mission conditions in Apollo 11. They were required to restore the antenna for communication and to move again the point of landing to a landmark that Armstrong has found, all that in 3 minutes. They also received numerous alarms without consequence, which turned out to be due to a handling error. This alarm however distracted them from monitoring their trajectory, and pushed them to use manual piloting with a risky delay of a few minutes. Despite this, they managed to land before they ran out of fuel.


Scientists or spacecraft pilots ?

These missions watched by the whole world have succeeded in landing humans on the moon until Apollo 18 (and excepting Apollo 13). They also showed how much space instruments were affected by unreliability and noise, which kept pilots an essential part of the mission. The role of redundancy, verification, and operation confirmation of the astronauts onboard led numerous times to the success of these missions.

Nevertheless, during the lunar landing phases, manual maneuvers were not always necessary, or even dangerous (as with Apollo 12). Current technologies could easily automate this operation without human help. But where humans still have a say is definitely to contribute knowledge and lead researches. The best example is when Apollo astronauts landed and mutated into researchers on the lunar ground.

Archaeologists or oceanographers are already controlling explorations drone from afar. And their missions also provide their dose of heroism: remotely guiding a drone on Mars faces the same challenges and difficulties as guiding an aircraft on air.

If automation replaces our manual tasks, it will certainly not remove this need of human curiosity and bravery to explore the uncharted areas of our planet, conscience or of the outer space. And that’s what intelligent technologies are here for !

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