Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight

by David A. Mindell


A note on sources:

Documents piled to the moon

            Apollo is still recent history, and a sense remains that the stories belong to the participants. The astronauts all tell their stories with an “I was there” authority, enhanced by the prestige they still enjoy from their erstwhile-celebrity status. More recently, ground controllers have begun to speak from their points of view, promoting their own roles and settling scores, and managers still pronounce on the lessons of Apollo. NASA has a thriving oral history program, and has conducted interviews with hundreds of the players in its history. I have read as many of these accounts and interviews as I could, and interviewed numerous participants myself, incorporating them whenever possible.
            But as historical sources, individuals’ memories have limitations. First, anything recalled more than thirty years later is distorted by the lens of memory – looking back, people simply attribute coherence and sense to their experience that may not have been present at the time (some argue that is the whole purpose of memory, and even of history). This is especially true of those who have told their stories many times (such as astronauts), who have settled into a stable narrative that carries a book or holds an audience. Many times during this project have I interviewed a participant or listened to a public talk only to hear, verbatim, stories from that person’s memoir or earlier oral history.
            Such retrospective views conflict with the historian’s job of trying to reconstruct people’s points of view during a particular historical period. For this study, it is vitally important to remember that during most of the 1960s nobody knew whether Apollo would succeed. What’s more, every participant has some interest in how the story comes out. Some Apollo astronauts, for example, still make their livings off their experiences giving speeches, signing autographs, and advocating for various visions of the future of spaceflight. They have direct interests, financial and otherwise, in a particular version of history and a particular account of their own roles. Much of this work also employs a nostalgic mode of “NASA’s glory days” during Apollo and describes how everything today is broken, where NASA went wrong, and how it should be fixed. None of it is malicious – nobody has tried to deceive. It is simply the nature of human memory as people seek to make meaning out of their experiences.
            So historians prefer primary sources, those created around the time the events in question took place. The term itself is relative – a newspaper article is a primary source for what the press said about a particular event but it is less primary for the event itself. For Apollo, the most primary sources tend to be memos, proposals, and technical documents through which the daily engineering struggles were hashed out. The transcripts of the missions themselves also provide a great deal of second-by-second detail about the astronauts interacting with their machines and with their colleagues on the ground. The lunar landings allows a kind of technological ethnography that is nearly impossible with other types of systems. Another set of sources combines the immediacy and direct experience of personal interviews without the flaws of memory – a set of oral history interviews conducted by NASA historians during the project. People would literally walk across the hall, often before the spacecraft actually flew, and share their thoughts with a NASA historian with a tape recorder. These valuable interviews capture a great deal of local detail and personality, as well as the uncertainty of Apollo in its formative stages.
            During the course of this project, the World Wide Web became a source and a repository for historical materials. An early effort involved scanning and posting numerous documents about Apollo guidance and control on the web, as well as a number of group oral histories. These joined a growing body of web-based Apollo history and documentation, particularly the outstanding Apollo Lunar Surface Journals complied and posted by Eric Jones and his collaborators. Ritch Katz has also been a tireless scanner and poster of documents on his site. These, the NASA websites, and other Apollo enthusiasts who populate the web with primary documents and commentary constitute a new kind of virtual community contributing to histories of science and technology. This book, necessarily partial and incomplete, is my attempt to synthesize traditional archival material with the web’s unruly richness into a new scholarly narrative of a project we thought we knew.