The passing of Neil Armstrong

August 28, 2012

The Saturn V carrying Apollo 11 took several s...

The passing of Neil Armstrong has brought back memories of the historic Moon landing in 1969.  Many who are old enough will remember the awe and excitement of seeing the Apollo 11 mission on the grainy TVs of the day.  I remember as a young boy that my school let the kids out early to view it and I recall peering through shop windows at the landing on the display TVs which were everywhere due to the significance of the event.  Many people had the same idea – it was standing room only outside the local store.

The various articles praise President Kennedy for the original vision, and the scientists and engineers who made it happen. But, as always, it was the human astronauts who carried out the mission, and I recall reading that Armstrong actually took control of the Lunar lander to steer it to its safe resting position after realizing that the planned location was unsuitable.

This poses the question of what role humans will play in future manned missions into space. Will they just be cargo and the autonomous spaceship take them where it is programmed to go? Or will the specially trained commander of the mission and their crew do a similar yet higher tech version of Armstrong and have the final say in where they go?

A few weeks ago, I posted a comment on the issues with regard to pilots becoming flight managers rather than retaining their ultimate control of the aircraft.  There is a current discussion about the ramifications of this for the skills of the pilots and their ability to recover a situation if the automation controls fail for whatever reason. It seems that there is always a problem in striking a balance between automation and human control.  In many circumstances, we get it right but there is still a view that humans should be excluded from decision processes.  I think a better way to go is to provide the humans in executive control the information they require to make the right decisions.  Robbing them of this basic situational awareness is a typical error in automation and the ramifications can be catastrophic.

So, as always, we need to ensure that we provide the right information to the human in the loop, at the right time, and in the right format.  That’s where human factorsprofessionals can help.

Neil Armstrong, Apollo 11

Neil Armstrong, Apollo 11 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)