Course Summary

A detailed technical and historical exploration of the Apollo project to fly humans to the moon and return them safely to earth as an example of a complex engineering system. Emphasis is on how the systems worked, the technical and social processes that produced them, mission operations, and historical significance. Topics include: Historical antecedents, guidance and control, digital computing, systems engineering, project management, human-machine interface, propulsion and structures, space policy, industrial infrastructure, Cold War politics, American culture in the 1950s and 60s, and future moon missions. Guest lectures by MIT-affiliated engineers and astronauts who contributed to and participated in the Apollo missions. Students work in teams on a final project analyzing an aspect of the historical project to articulate and synthesize ideas in engineering systems.

Professor Mindell’s website.

Course Readings

There is a significant amount of reading each week, usually composed of chapters from historical books in addition to one or more technical articles. Students are expected to do the reading before each class, and there will be weekly quizzes on the reading assignments for that week to verify.

The required books are:

Kelly, Thomas. Moon Lander: How We Developed the Apollo Lunar Module. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001. ISBN: 9781560989981.

Cox, Catherine Bly, and Charles Murray. Apollo: The Race to the Moon. Burkittsville, MD: Cox & Murray Inc., 2004. ISBN: 9780976000808.

In addition, we will be reading Prof. Mindell’s new manuscript:

Mindell, David. Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Six Lunar Landings. Unpublished manuscript.

Optional books which students might find interesting are:

Chaikin, Andrew. A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts. New York, NY: Penguin, 2007. ISBN: 9780143112358. (Strongly recommended.)

MacDougall, Walter. The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age. New York, NY: Basic Books Inc., 1985. ISBN: 9780465028870.

Kraft, Chris. Flight: My Life in Mission Control. New York, NY: Penguin, 2002. ISBN: 9780452283046.

Kranz, Gene. Failure is Not an Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond. Farmington Hills, MI: Thomson Gale, 2001. ISBN: 9780425179871.

In addition, a number of books will be on reserve in the Aero/Astro library.

Course Assignments and Grading

Attendance at course meetings is mandatory; failure to attend will be reflected in the final grade. The grade breakdown for the course is as follows:

30% Book Review

Read one of the books on the approved course list and write a 3-5 page review. Write-up should include critical examination of book and its sources, and discussion of topic’s relevance to the larger Apollo project. Review should also discuss an engineering decision discussed in the book and what factors came into play when making that decision.

30% Quizzes

Weekly quiz on the reading assignments for that week. If you’ve done the reading that week, the quizzes should be no problem.

40% Final Team Projects

Subsystem analysis and redesign. Detailed study of a single subsystem from Apollo, discussing specifications, engineering choices, and performance, and problems. Redesign using today’s technology, materials, and management techniques in support of CEV program using lessons derived from Apollo.

Weekly Syllabus

1 Introduction and overview  
2 Apollo as a complex system  
3 Historical/technical analysis of engineering systems  
4 Systems engineering and atlas  
5 Organizing research from NACA to NASA  
6 Sputnik, Mercury, and the Cold War  
7 Kennedy’s decision: From politics to engineering specs  
8 The LOR decision  
9 The Soviet moon program  
10 Gemini and early Apollo engineering  
11 Apollo guidance and control  
12 Astronautical guidance  
13 Engineering the LEM  
14 Designing a landing Book review assignment due
15 NASA’s current moon plans  
16 Apollo software  
17 Apollo 11  
18 Apollo 14: An astronaut’s view  
19 Apollo 12 and group project freetime  
20 Covering Apollo: The role of the press  
21 Life support and human factors I  
22 Bob Parker: Scientist-astronauts and lunar science  
23 Student presentations  
24 Student presentations wrap up  
25 MIT museum trip  
26 Final class  
Learning Resource Types
Lecture Notes
Written Assignments with Examples
Presentation Assignments with Examples