Wednesday, October 14, 2015 [Tweets] [Favorites]

That Would Never Happen

Robert McMillan (comments):

One day, Lauren was playing with the MIT command module simulator’s display-and-keyboard unit, nicknamed the DSKY (dis-key). As she toyed with the keyboard, an error message popped up. Lauren had crashed the simulator by somehow launching a prelaunch program called P01 while the simulator was in midflight. There was no reason an astronaut would ever do this, but nonetheless, Hamilton wanted to add code to prevent the crash. That idea was overruled by NASA. “We had been told many times that astronauts would not make any mistakes,” she says. “They were trained to be perfect.” So instead, Hamilton created a program note—an add-on to the program’s documentation that would be available to NASA engineers and the astronauts: “Do not select P01 during flight,” it said. Hamilton wanted to add error-checking code to the Apollo system that would prevent this from messing up the systems. But that seemed excessive to her higher-ups. “Everyone said, ‘That would never happen,’” Hamilton remembers.

But it did. Right around Christmas 1968—five days into the historic Apollo 8 flight, which brought astronauts to the moon for the first-ever manned orbit—the astronaut Jim Lovell inadvertently selected P01 during flight. Hamilton was in the second-floor conference room at the Instrumentation Laboratory when the call came in from Houston. Launching the P01 program had wiped out all the navigation data Lovell had been collecting. That was a problem. Without that data, the Apollo computer wouldn’t be able to figure out how to get the astronauts home.

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