Apollo: Progress in Technology? - Embedded.com

Apollo: Progress in Technology?

Forty years ago, Neil Armstrong's definitive line of technical poetry, “Tranquility base here, the Eagle has landed,” marked a human achievement that still inspires awe. It also challenges the twentieth century idea of progress and helps us redefine it for the future.

We often hear that progress in technology is incremental, an ever upward arc of performance. Apollo showed how a perfect storm of politics, engineering, and skilled pilots can leap ahead of ordinary rules. Yet we have not returned to the moon, not ventured to mars, and only rarely, if ever, matched Apollo's excitement in subsequent human spaceflights. Apollo remains an historical anomaly that undermines our twentieth-century notions of progress.

Public discourse today is fond of measuring progress with Moore's law about the power of the microchip. Back in the twentieth century, it was aviation and spaceflight that marked technology's advance, relentlessly breaking barriers. Leading the way, the Apollo astronauts' role was carefully crafted to epitomize the modern heroic explorer: the man who risks his life in a far away place for the national or scientific good. Apollo 11 followed Charles Lindbergh's flight by only forty two years. Higher, faster, farther were the watchwords, and history suggested the progress might continue indefinitely.

Apollo's six lunar landings seemed like a point on that upward curve, but in fact they were its apogee. For some, twentieth-century progress seemed to stop right about 1970. People assumed they would soon fly on supersonic airliners, but the American super sonic transport SST project was canceled in 1970 (even its European competitor, the Concorde, stopped flying six years ago). Apollo was celebrated as the start of a new wave of human exploration, but forty years later the six lunar landings remain the highest, the fastest, the farthest that humans have ever gone.

Did technological progress stop in 1970? Of course not, but it did take a turn, and began moving in new directions. Following Apollo's innovations, the microprocessor was invented in 1971, ushering in a world of ever expanding computing. Since then our idea of progress, rather than simply higher, faster, farther, has reoriented toward smaller, lighter, and more complex. We now focus on measures that incorporate social, informational, and economic factors rather than strictly Newtonian velocity, altitude, and distance. Companies that produce jet airliners, for example, now define progress more by increasing safety and reducing cost per passenger-mile than by increasing speed.

Apollo exemplified this change of direction by its own contradictions. While the massive Saturn V rocket and its millions of pounds of thrust embodied a twentieth century ideal of gigantism, its onboard computers, taking just 1 cubic foot of space, used only enough energy to power a light bulb. Apollo was the moment when people stopped bragging about how big their computers were and started bragging about how small they were. While NASA cast the astronauts in Lindbergh's self-sufficient heroic mold, Apollo's networks embedded them in a rich web of instruments, programs, and communications. The astronauts trusted their lives to embedded computers, software and remote helpers for launch, navigation, even the very control of the lunar module, right down to the lunar surface.

Apollo culminated the old narratives of progress, but contained within it the seeds of the new. Today, as it plans a return to the moon, NASA is building “Apollo on steroids,” a lunar lander with four crew members instead of Apollo's two, to stay on the moon for seven days instead of Apollo's three. The agency would do well to eschew twentieth century measures of progress and instead invent new models, where “better” may be different from what anyone imagined. Reawakening the spirit of Apollo will require inventing technologies to define new forms of exploration, new modes of human experience, and new notions of progress.

David A. Mindell, IEEE member & professor of engineering and the history of technology at MIT, is the author of Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight (MIT Press, 2008) and director of MIT's research group in Space, Policy and Society. For more writings by David Mindell, see his web site at http://web.mit.edu/mindell/www/


Author of Digital Apollo David Mindell sits at the Apollo flight directors' station.

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