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MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics

AeroAstro Magazine Highlight

The following appears in the 2008–2009 issue of AeroAstro, the annual report/magazine of the MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics Department. © 2009 Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


Apollo was sheer creative expression

By David Mindell

The Giant Leaps symposium was exhilarating. An auditorium full of accomplished scientists and engineers was reminded of why we got into the business of technology in the first place. From the president of MITapollo 11 launch to our current students, the excitement of human spaceflight, particularly the Apollo program, has had an impact on us all. The panelists were simply legends whose names we all grew up with - Armstrong, Aldrin, Battin, Cohen, Gavin, Kraft, Mueller, Schmitt, Sorensen, and the still-present Seamans.

Apollo was, of cours,e a product of its time, as Ted Sorensen so clearly articulated when describing its Cold War origins. Yet at that moment when “The Eagle has landed” (or “One small step for man”) Apollo rose above that history. There it stands, by itself 40 years later, as a technological accomplishment that has not been superseded by Moore’s law, DNA sequencing, or any other breakthroughs since then. We hear that technology is incremental, that it progresses in an ever upward arc of physical parameters. Apollo showed how a perfect storm of politics, management, engineering, and operations can leap ahead of those ordinary rules.

We also hear that engineering is about solving problems to improve the human condition, and undoubtedly that is often true. But Apollo points to another, perhaps deeper motivation for engineering: the sheer creative expression of conceiving and building new technologies. Like poets or philosophers, engineers’ wondrous creations are meditations on the human place in the universe, on the human relationship to machines, on the nature of human experience. The Apollo program broke new ground in all three.

To the challenges of the future, the Apollo model may not be the way to go. Kennedy’s “Man, moon, decade” provided a clear, straightforward challenge with no ambiguity as to its success. Today we face problems (like the future of human spaceflight, as well as energy independence and climate change) that are large, vaguely defined, with a host of stakeholders and non-linear interactions. But the Giant Leaps Symposium showed what aspects of Apollo are relevant to our future: the ambition to tackle a problem that may not be solvable, the values of disciplined engineering, the willingness to take risks to achieve a higher goal, and the creative energies unleashed by an inspired project. Forty years from now, we will be celebrating tomorrow’s Apollo project, whose seeds and future leaders are undoubtedly on our campus today.

David A. Mindell, an engineer and historian, is the Dibner Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing and the Director of MIT’s program in Science, Technology and Society. His most recent book is “Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight.”

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