Book Review: Left Brains for the Right Stuff

Left Brains for the Right Stuff
The author provides special insider insights that few other historical accounts have considered. He weaves in the history of computing and concentrates on the guidance and control systems—the crux of the book's intent.

Category: Nonfiction
Reviewed by: Ted Spitzmiller
Title: Left Brains for the Right Stuff: Computers, Space, and History
Author: Hugh Blair-Smith
NSS Amazon link for this book
Format: Paperback/Kindle
Pages: 460
Publisher: SDP Publishing
Date: November 2015
Retail price: $20.95/$7.20
ISBN: 978-0996434539

This book merges the development of the computer, the race to the Moon, and the Cold War as a backdrop to the author’s career. The prologue is unique as it ties his early beginning as an employee with MIT and the phone call that began the first contract resulting from the Kennedy commitment to putting a man on the Moon—the Apollo spacecraft’s guidance computer.

The author weaves the history of computing (and its ever maturing hardware and software) and the space program into events of his life that focus on systems engineering. What is so amazing about this milieu is that the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR) technique that was employed to put humans on the Moon had not been seriously considered when the program began. Rendezvous is the technique to bring together two spacecraft in orbit.

The first chapter provides a brief and somewhat humorous history of human spaceflight before the 20th century to include a bit of imaginative storytelling by Jules Vern. Then another short step back into the history of navigation that will be intellectually revealing to many.

An overview of the early rocket theorists and experimentalists such as Robert Goddard follows. Essential concepts for identifying words used later bring the reader along a potentially rocky road. Golfers will appreciate the author’s use of a putt to simulate the vagaries of the dynamics of a rocket’s guidance system.

A quick course on Cartesian coordinates orients the newcomer to the space guidance environment along with the foundation for the gyroscope. There are a few mathematical terms defined, but don’t let them intimidate, as the author continues to prepare you for the computing work environment that was emerging.

An excellent abbreviated history of the stored-program computer shows how it was advanced by World War II’s needs, with many of the key concepts explained. Throughout this book the author uses numerous vignettes to convey the adoption of the various idioms such as the infamous “computer bug” and “garbage-in, garbage-out”—expressions that would be common language more than a half-century later.

The reader may be forgiven for periodically speed-reading segments they may find superfluous to moving the plot along. But then, this is as much an autobiography as a historical essay. Computer nerds will enjoy this part of the book, such as the concepts of parity checking. As a former IBM guy, I reveled at the reference to their field engineer’s white-shirt-and-tie ensembles.

A review of the late 1950s reacquaints the reader with superpower politics created by nuclear weapons, their delivery systems, and the first Earth satellite—Sputnik. This moves the dialogue into the creation of the Apollo Moon program and its Saturn booster. Legendary anecdotes about reliability continue the author’s witty storytelling abilities. A synopsis of the Apollo spacecraft systems is well done. It effectively captures the primary functions in few words. The description of the lunar module and the LOR concept is again word perfect.

With the primary hardware out of the way, the author concentrates back on the guidance and control systems—the crux of the book’s intent. The reader is introduced to the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC). The AGC was the primary interface between the astronaut’s sometimes-gloved fingers, and the ability to converse with the spacecraft.

The author does a commendable job of explaining the “how and why” behind the numerous AGC VERB and NOUN commands that were used to communicate. The selection of several of these commands the author lays at the feet of Shakespeare’s Henry VI.

The talent to find and convey the spirit of the AGC comes through very appropriately here. The development of the integrated circuit allowed the packaging of several transistors into little more area than the size of a pea—at the time, an incredibly small volume. It was quite an amazing process to design a computer for an application conceived in parallel.

Periodic one-page summaries of the space race for a given year keep the reader in the timeline.

A brief description of the Saturn V rocket includes the Command and Service Module and Lunar Module. It then takes the reader through the proposed mission as directed by the AGC.

There is a review of the Soviet’s Vostok 3 and 4 simultaneous Earth orbital flights in 1962 and the author’s conjecture of an attempted rendezvous based on manual computation that failed. He stresses that without the aid of electronic computer-based calculations, the maneuver was not possible. However, despite misleading propaganda by the Soviet “news” agency TASS, these Vostok spacecraft had no provision for that capability, but the discussion is worthwhile in revealing some of the basics of the process.

A challenge to MIT by IBM for the AGC hardware/software project is successfully rebuffed, and that chapter ends with President Kennedy’s unfortunate assassination.

The next chapter provides a continuous progression of the AGC, with the author periodically describing many events that advance the processor’s speed and capacity. For readers who have been programmers of the type that tightly weave the software into a project’s hardware fabric (as AGC was), the events described will bring forth both sweet and sour memories.

The tragic 1967 Apollo 1 fire that killed astronauts Grissom, Chaffee, and White is covered appropriately. The description of the in-flight work-around for the unmanned Saturn V SA-502 test to handle the in-flight failure of a second-stage engine kept my attention.

A problem for some readers will be the constant introduction of abbreviations and acronyms and the need to keep the definition pages 431 and 432 bookmarked.

Emotions of the heart and soul were stirred for those who viewed the first human flight around the Moon by Apollo 8 in December 1968.

Although the author’s AGC software activity had been completed before the first Apollo lunar landing, each flight is reviewed. He provides special insider insights that few other historical accounts have considered. The lightning strike to Apollo 12 and the heroic flight of Apollo 13 is well covered.

As the book concludes, the author again provides a political perspective of the Soviet Union and communism and its interplay with the space race. The dark side of congressional interference in awarding contracts is briefly addressed as the author notes how MIT was effectively excluded from primary Space Shuttle work—to IBM’s benefit.

We are fortunate that Hugh Blair-Smith has taken the time to reveal so many interesting and important aspects of the Apollo program that highlighted his career.

© 2021 Ted Spitzmiller

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