Automation vs Experience: Lessons from an Historic Spaceflight

Astronaut Gordon Cooper during his Mercury “Faith 7” flight

In today’s digital age, I often lament the over-reliance on algorithms and automation. Too often have I heard critical business decisions forestalled by the words, “There’s not enough data,” as we wait for our business analytics dashboards to provide the answer in flashing red text. It’s as if instinct, experience, ingenuity and creativity are no longer assigned value.

I present the story of astronaut Gordon “Gordo” Cooper, one of NASA’s Mercury 7 astronauts.  The following is an account from Wikipedia of his fateful “Faith 7” flight:

“On the 19th orbit, the first sign of trouble appeared when the spacecraft 0.05 g (0.5 m/s²) light came on. However, this turned out to be a faulty indicator, and the spacecraft was not reentering. On the 20th orbit, Cooper lost all attitude readings. The 21st orbit saw a short-circuit occur in the bus bar serving the 250 volt main inverter. This left the automatic stabilization and control system without electric power.

On the 21st orbit, John Glenn on board the tracking ship Coastal Sentry Quebec near Kyūshū, Japan, helped Cooper prepare a revised checklist for retrofire. Due to the system malfunctions, many of the steps would have to be done manually. Only Hawaii and Zanzibar were in radio range on this last orbit, but communications were good. Cooper noted that the carbon dioxide level was rising in the cabin and in his spacesuit. He told [Scott] Carpenter as he passed over Zanzibar, “Things are beginning to stack up a little.” Throughout the problems, Cooper remained cool, calm and collected…

At the end of the 21st orbit, Cooper again contacted Glenn on the Coastal Sentry Quebec. He reported the spacecraft was in retro attitude and holding manually. The checklist was complete. Glenn gave a ten-second countdown to retrofire. Cooper kept the spacecraft aligned at a 34° pitchdown angle and manually fired the retrorockets on “Mark!”.
Cooper had drawn lines on the window to stay aligned with constellations as he flew the craft. He later said he used his wristwatch to time the burn and his eyes to maintain attitude.

Fifteen minutes later Faith 7 landed just four miles (6 km) from the prime recovery ship, the carrier USS Kearsarge. This was the most accurate landing to date, despite the lack of automatic controls.”

Cooper’s calm demeanor and flying proficiency honed through years of experience as an Air Force test pilot paid off. Equipped only with a marker pen and a wristwatch, with some help from his buddy on the radio, astronaut Gordo Cooper landed his spacecraft safely and with relative pinpoint accuracy.

Faith 7 achieved a record 21 orbits around the earth and would be the last of the Mercury missions. Cooper would also be the last American to go up into space alone. (He would later fly again as command pilot of the two-man Gemini 5 mission.) Cooper died 14 years ago this month at the age of 77.

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