Nasa Gemini Owners' Workshop Manual cover

Book Reviews

Haynes puts a well-deserved spotlight on an ill-recalled Nasa mission in this month’s round-up of technology publishing.

Haynes Publishing

Nasa Gemini Owners’ Workshop Manual

By David Woods and David M Harland, £22.99, ISBN 9780857334213

Many books have commemorated the Apollo lunar missions, but few have covered the Nasa missions that laid the engineering groundwork for Apollo: the 12 spaceflights of the Gemini programme. This latest addition to the series of Haynes Workshop Manuals on space vehicles puts the record straight with a comprehensive and colourful description of the two-man spacecraft.

It’s hard to imagine quite how new and exciting spaceflight must have seemed half a century ago, in March 1965, when astronauts Grissom and Young flew the first manned Gemini mission. Less than four years earlier, when President John F Kennedy had proclaimed that America would land a man on the Moon by the end of the decade, the nation had clocked just 15 minutes of manned spaceflight experience. The Mercury capsules that had delivered that experience were only large enough to accommodate a single astronaut (or chimpanzee) in a seated position; the rift between them and a vehicle that could deliver three men to lunar orbit and two to the surface was huge. It was Gemini’s job to bridge that rift.
Gemini was a sort of flying test-bench - designed to prove the technologies and techniques that would get men safely to the Moon and back. As the authors point out, the programme pushed the state of the art in environmental control, guidance and navigation (including the use of on-board computers) and fuel cells. It also refined techniques for orbital rendezvous, docking, spacewalking and simply surviving in space for up to two weeks at a time. Although small (you could pack six or seven Gemini capsules into a Space Shuttle payload bay), it was America’s first ‘real spacecraft’, as this manual clearly shows.

Following an introductory section, it describes the Gemini’s Titan II launch vehicle and Agena docking target (most famously adapted as an orbital ‘capsule-napper’ for the James Bond film ‘You Only Live Twice’). It then devotes chapters to each of the major subsystems, such as propulsion, power and pyrotechnic systems, concluding with mission descriptions and re-entry/recovery techniques. As one would expect from a modern-day Haynes guide, it is illustrated with line drawings based on the Nasa originals and an excellent set of nicely printed colour photographs.

At times, the descriptions are reminiscent of a Hollywood movie script: in what Gene Cernan would later call his “spacewalk from hell”, his heart rate reached 180 beats per minute, his helmet visor fogged-up, and damage to suit insulation produced “severe sunburn” to his lower back. Having “sweated 10lb”, the authors reveal, “he poured several pints of water from his boots” following recovery.

At an almost unbelievable tempo, Nasa flew 10 manned Gemini missions between March 1965 and November 1966: an average of one every two months. This brief and poorly remembered interlude between the ‘Right Stuff’ of the Mercury missions and the triumph of Apollo has demoted the Gemini missions into relative obscurity. But as this book illustrates, without them there would have been no Apollo, no Earthrise photo and no “one small step”.

Mark Williamson

Bodley Head

The Glass Cage: Where Automation is Taking Us

By Nicholas Carr, £20, ISBN 1847923089

The word ‘automation’ may only have entered the English language surprisingly recently - allegedly in 1946 when US engineers at the Ford Motor Company were looking for a word to describe the latest machinery being installed on their production lines - but it has quickly become a byword for mindless obedience and slavish following of instructions. How many times have you apologised for forgetting to do something by offering the excuse that you were ‘on autopilot’?
This kind of unthinking remorselessness provides the root of the fear that has evolved over the same period of some kind of ‘rise of the machines’, a concern that by abdicating more and more responsibility to automation we make ourselves vulnerable to it taking over completely.

But quite aside from the machines becoming autonomous or too powerful in the uneasy master/servant relationship that we have, Nicholas Carr warns of an active ceding of power: our reliance on machines to carry out the increasing number of tasks we find mundane is undermining our own ability to do them.

The ‘autopilot’ issue can in fact be a literal matter of life and death. In May 2009 an Airbus A330 equipped with the latest ‘glass cockpit’ controls plummeted 30,000ft into the Atlantic. Investigators blamed the fact that the autopilot had routinely switched itself off and, faced with having to fly the plane themselves, the human pilots experienced a “total loss of cognitive control”.

And like any other element of risk, our perception of the overall threat of automation is informed by how much control we feel we have over it. Sitting in an aircraft thousands of miles above the sea we’re happy to let a computer take care of us because we have no choice in the matter, yet taking the back seat in a driverless car doing 70mph on a motorway isn’t something we’d happily do.

Carr, who was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2011 for ‘The Shallows’, a study of what the Internet could be doing to our brains, says we urgently need to rethink the role of automation in our lives, using it to enhance rather than diminish the very things that make us human.

The mistake we’ve made, he claims, is to define our relationship with technology not as a cooperative one like that between one sibling and another, but as master and slave - an attitude that goes back as far as Aristotle’s musings on the idea of self-controlling tools that would replace human subordinates.

His conclusion isn’t a pessimistic one, but a warning that rather than rejecting technology because of the way it’s changing us we just need to rethink its role in our lives and how it can enhance rather than diminish the “extraordinary abilities that make us human”.

Dominic Lenton

Oxford University Press

Aha!: The Moments of Insight that Shape Our World

By William B Irvine, £16.99, ISBN 0199338876

“I simply looked up and I said, ‘Wait a minute - it can’t be quite that difficult. It must be very easy. I’ll just stand back and I’ll treat it very lightly. I’ll just tap it, boomp-boomp’ And there it was.”

Richard Feynman’s account of how after two years of effort he came up with the proof for his ‘theory of helium’ is a typical example of how a moment of inspiration so often ends up solving a problem that has appeared to be insoluble. What was different in this case was that Feynman, being Feynman, wondered whether it was possible to recreate the conditions that led to his moment of insight.

Sadly, despite his best efforts he couldn’t manage it and became the latest in a long line of people who have sought the basis for those occasions when a brilliant idea strikes - apparently out of the blue and so obvious when it’s apparent - after what can be years of grinding analysis.

Philosopher William B Irvine’s analysis of attempts identify what’s behind those ‘Aha!’ moments looks at their impact across the board, from art and literature to science and maths. It’s in the latter that sudden epiphanies have probably had the greatest impact on our lives, although as he acknowledges technological advances are usually followed by questions of ethics and morality which can require just as much mental effort to resolve.

So are we any closer to finding out what’s behind the process by which you find the answer to a crossword clue that’s been bugging you all day, and how similar it is to the lightning strike behind the effect experienced by great minds from Archimedes to Einstein?

Not really, but thinking about how we think up good ideas is a useful exercise in itself.

Irvine describes himself as a ‘21st-century Stoic’, following the ancient Greek school of philosophy which sought moral and intellectual perfection in the elimination of destructive emotions that result from errors in judgment. Perhaps, he suggests, our greatest thoughts aren’t even the product of our conscious minds as we’d like to believe. Instead it’s our unconscious that is the source of significant insight, a ‘reward’ to the conscious for grappling unsuccessfully with a problem.

Dominic Lenton

History From the IET Library & Archives

The Schrödinger’s Cat Conundrum: What Really is in the Box?

The IET Archives recently received a donation of a small box that supposedly contained a ‘permanent detector’ - a component that was used in connection with crystal radio sets of the 1920s - made by Radio Instruments between 1922 and 1930. But was that really the item that could be found inside?

Well, there was something in the box that looked a little like the illustration, but it was definitely a different object. Upon careful examination, in a certain light, at a certain angle, the faint lettering ‘Brownie Permatector’ could be found.
This was nothing to do with the eponymous dessert square developed in the US at the end of the 19th century, but instead a permanent detector made by a rival firm to RI called the JWB Wireless Company under the Brownie brand name. Both companies manufactured permanent detectors for crystal radio sets in the 1920s. The Brownie version was introduced in 1926.

A crystal radio receiver, or crystal set, contained a ‘cat’s-whisker’ detector, an electronic component consisting of a thin wire that gently touches a crystal of semiconducting mineral. The Brownie permanent crystal detector comprises a nickel-plated housing with a crystal and whisker inside the housing. The whisker could be fixed permanently at a sensitive point on the crystal hence the term ‘permanent detector’.

Given the above, we now have tangible evidence of one reality in answer to the Schrödinger cat conundrum. What’s inside the box - is a cat’s whisker!

Jon Cable

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