What made the Space Race possible? What made it necessary? How close a race was it? And what did it achieve? The answers are connected in surprising ways.
Left Brains for the Right Stuff briefly summarizes the history of three technologies-rockets, navigation, and computers-and recounts how they were woven into the rise and rivalry of superpowers in the twentieth century. President John F. Kennedy inherited a small Space Race and transformed it into a Moon Race by creating the Apollo program (“…achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon…”). To make it an “offer” the Soviet Union couldn’t refuse, he added, “We choose to go to the moon…not because [it is] easy, but because [it is] hard.”
Apollo won the Moon Race and, combined with the Space Shuttle, won the Space Race, which did much to win the Cold War and preserve the momentum of American leadership that had been created in World War II. Many big companies worked on those programs, and so did a small academic research laboratory. At Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the Instrumentation Laboratory (“the Lab”) was the creation of one man, Charles Stark “Doc” Draper, who invented inertial navigation.
Hugh Blair-Smith was a staff engineer at the Lab from 1959 through 1981. Trained as an electronic engineer and computer scientist, his two-pronged expertise contributed to both the hardware of spacecraft computers and the programming that had to make the most of their limited resources. This is a history, an inside story, and a riveting account of the Space Race, studded with startling insights into causes and effects. In those exciting years, Blair-Smith joined many thousands of people in cooperating gladly, generously, and passionately to add electronic left brains to the Right Stuff. Their creations answered the long-sought quest for “a moral equivalent to war.”
About the Author
As the Space Race began, Hugh Blair-Smith joined the engineering staff of MIT’s Instrumentation Laboratory, founded by Charles Stark “Doc” Draper to develop self-contained inertial navigation for missiles, aircraft, and spacecraft. That timing gave him a ground floor spot with Apollo’s Primary Guidance, Navigation, and Control system, where he became the software specialist on the Apollo Guidance Computer design team, and the computer hardware specialist on the AGC programming team.
Halfway through a 22-year career at MIT, he refocused on fault tolerance logic for the Space Shuttle’s onboard computer system. Direct contact with astronauts included Buzz Aldrin (studying rendezvous science at MIT), Dave Scott (among the first to fully embrace the AGC way of flying), and Bob Crippen (a team member on the Shuttle work).
Leaving MIT at the end of 1981, he specialized in user-interface and system-performance software, and after retiring to Cape Cod in 2005, worked with NASA on reliability software for an instrument in the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, thereby placing thousands of his own ones and zeros in orbit around the Moon.
Hugh and his wife Vicki, married since 1968, have two grown children, who are successful professionals. There are also two teenaged grandchildren and approximately twenty-five granddogs. When he’s not sailing or preparing a paper to give at the next Digital Avionics Systems Conference, he enjoys teaching boating skills, reading (mostly history and other non-fiction), avoiding watching television, taking medium walks and thinking long thoughts, and puzzling out the meaning in a busy life.