Going into Chimp Mode

Machines and humans exploring the cosmos. This edition published by Corgi Books 1986

The first primate to orbit the Earth in 1961 as part of the American space programme was a chimpanzee, and he, and other chimps who took part in the early flights, performed their tasks quite successfully.  Later, during the Mercury-Atlas 8 mission in 1962, the fifth manned space flight by the United States, astronaut Walter M Schirra Jr made six orbits of the Earth.  As Tom Wolfe describes in his 1979 book The Right Stuff, he used the memorable phrase that he had gone into “chimp mode” at certain points in the flight when the spacecraft was being controlled automatically – for obvious reasons, control of the attitude of the capsule on the chimp flights had been automatic throughout.

Schirra maintained that he could control the spacecraft better, and more economically in terms of fuel consumption, by hand.  But automatic control, for at least part of any space mission, was going to be inevitable as the way forward, not least because astronauts do need to sleep sometimes.

Even so, occasionally human control of a spacecraft becomes essential.  There is a dramatic scene in the 1995 film Apollo 13 where, as the spacecraft is returning to Earth after the aborted Moon landing, there is no power for the computer so the guidance systems have been shut down, and a vital course correction must be executed manually.  Being in chimp mode was not an option.

As was only to be expected, computers on manned spacecraft became increasingly complex, taking over more and more functions of routine operation, and have proved remarkably reliable.  OK, there have been some fatal flaws in unmanned missions, going back to the guidance computer failure on Mariner 1 in 1962, but human crews have so far escaped any really major setbacks from such causes.

Reliance on automatic systems will only expand in the future, though there are plenty of fictional examples where people have to step in when it all goes pear-shaped, as with the famous HAL 9000 computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, or when human activity is the only solution to a problem – the computer waking the entire crew from suspended animation at the start of the original Alien film, to respond to an unexpected transmission, springs to mind.  So we can safely expect future humans and their computer systems to boldly go together to where no person or computer has gone before.

The outcome, in due course, seems clear.  Just as human beings on Earth seem destined to be ever more closely integrated, both mentally and physically, with computers – merger with machines and potential immortality may well be on the way – so the same is possible for space travel.  The science fiction author Anne McCaffrey’s 1969 novel The Ship Who Sang describes a future where spaceships – or “brainships” – are a form of cyborg combining human and computer elements.  In a widespread interstellar civilization, the choice for parents of very severely disabled babies is a “final, harsh decision: to give their child euthanasia or permit it to become an encapsulated ‘brain’, a guiding mechanism in any one of a number of curious professions.”  One of which is to become a spacecraft.

Some people regard this as a horrible existence, given that the person concerned had no choice in the matter.  But others, including the brainships themselves, see it differently – once someone has been confined within this mechanical environment for life, and received appropriate education, “the well-oriented brain would not have changed places with the most perfect body in the Universe.”

But even then, human mobility and actions are indispensible at the end of the day.  Brainships carry human crew members – “the ‘brawns’ as opposed to their ship ‘brains’.”  After all, someone still has to do the physical labouring that’s needed from time to time in the depths of space.  True symbiosis between machines and humans is still likely to have its limitations.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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