Thoughts from a Cosmonaut

Valentina Leonidovna Ponomaryova is a former Soviet cosmonaut: with a background in applied mathematics, she was selected in 1962 as a member of the first group of women cosmonauts.  Never got to fly a mission, though–she’d been scheduled to fly on Vostok 6, following Valentina Tereshkova’s scheduled flight on Vostok 5, but “Ponomaryova did not respond with standard Soviet cliches in interviews and her feminism made the Soviet leadership uneasy” and the crew assignments were altered. She later worked in orbital mechanics.

Interesting interview with her here.  Particularly interesting, IMO, are her thoughts about the respective roles of humans vs automated systems in spaceflight.

In the United States, spacecraft technology developed on the basis of aviation, and the respect for and trust in the pilot, characteristics of aviation, naturally transferred to spacecraft technology. In the Soviet Union, spacecraft technology was based on artillery and rocketry. Rocket scientists never dealt with “a human on board”; for them, the concept of automatic control was much easier to comprehend.


There is no doubt that, despite a large number of extraordinary and emergency situations, the Gemini and the Apollo programs were completed successfully because in the United States from the very beginning manned spacecraft were designed with orientation toward semi-automatic control systems in which the leading and decisive role was given to astronauts. The Gemini guidance system was already semi-automatic, and the Apollo guidance system was designed in such a way that one astronaut could perform all the operations necessary for the return from any point of the lunar orbit independently from information received from the Earth.

The opposites eventually met: semi-automatic systems constituted the “golden mean” that Soviet and American cosmonautics approached from two opposite directions: the Soviets coming from the automatic systems, and the Americans, one might say, from the manual ones.

Applicable to systems of many kinds in addition to spacecraft, I think, and many American organizations seem to be departing from the ‘golden mean’ in the direction of too much dependence on automated systems which are insufficiently understood and supervised.

16 thoughts on “Thoughts from a Cosmonaut”

  1. Had the Soviets had an “Apollo 13 Moment” you have to wonder if the result would have been the same. As it was it was a near-miraculous return for us.

  2. I think that the reduction in general “competence” has gone hand-in-hand with the increasing demand for more and more control by the various “authorities” and “elites”, all of which speak disparagingly of the unwashed filth which constitutes “the rest of us”.

    It’s a parasitic movement, one that you can identify as far back as the pre-WWI era. Sinclair Lewis is a perfect example of this self-identified “elite”, particularly when he wrote so disparagingly of the “bourgeoisie” and their supposedly evil ways. With regards to Babbitt, a character he excoriated for his supposed “narrow-minded, self-satisfied and unthinking attachment to middle-class values and materialism”, what we can now see is that what he truly loathed was anyone who did well and functioned within a civilized society. Much like Marx, instead of idolizing the competent, he held up the romantic incompetent “artiste” and bohemian to the light, as ideals.

    You can see where that wound up, in the ruins of the society he denigrated, all around us. Would Detroit be better off, if Babbitt had reigned supreme as the manager, rather than all those self-righteous progressive morons who turned the Arsenal of Democracy into the wasteland it is today?

    We’ve given far too much credence to the glib pronouncements of these people, and held them to little or no accountability for what the implementation of their grand theories and pronouncements has actually produced. The so-called “brights” promised us a solution to homelessness in the greater Puget Sound metro area, demanding we spend a billion dollars a year on the problem. What has their great work and our tax dollar actually produced?

    Exponentially more homelessness and a dramatically degraded quality of life for the rest of us. All in the name of “charity” for the dysfunctional…

    Where this is going to end? No idea, but I can see either a cascade of failures producing a “Detroit on the Sound” or a revanchist mentality taking over and draconian solutions to the “problem of homelessness” becoming not only palatable, but demanded by the general public.

    At some point, the parasitism of the “intellectual class” will have to end, either in death of the host organism, or being thrown off by the cultural immune system. I can see it going either way, but I suspect that there’s not going to be enough of a reaction until Seattle and its environs are in ruins.

    What doesn’t work, won’t last. One way or another.

  3. I’ve commented on this, extensively, over at the “Locklin on Science” blog. Some of the discussion in response to what I had to say might be of value to those interested in the issue.

    To summarize what I think has taken place in regards to the “lost productivity” we think we should have gained, what with the computer/Internet revolution coming to us all… The black hole that has sucked all that up? The idiotarian control-freak class that wants to micromanage everything.

    Simply put, the computer/Internet duo makes it far too easy for these people to inflict themselves and their demands for information and control over things that are inherently beyond control on the organizations that they parasitize.

    Consider the TPS report, as shown in Mike Judge’s “Office Space”. While a real TPS report in the proper circumstance can be a valuable tool for the organization, it and the mentality that produces such inane reporting requirements simply eat time and effort up that otherwise would have gone to productive use.

    Same with meetings. Same with damn near every single thing we do in organizations that aren’t strictly necessary, yet which are enabled by the computer. It’s a device that badly needs discipline, yet we often don’t realize that fact. All too often, the supervisor/manager thinks that because the production of pretty-pretty meaningless and useless reports is “easy”, as they see it from their position, they don’t pay attention to what it costs the organization elsewhere, in order to comply with their petty power-hunger and desire to control. If you can demand that your subordinates dance to your tunes, and support your demands for the inane and useless, that’s a highly gratifying thing to some personality types. Not to mention, it serves as a useful anodyne for the incompetent–Don’t know what you’re doing? Mask that by demanding incessant reports from those that do. If you want to observe a Peter Principle case in someone, look at what they do in their new position: Demand reports from lowers? Peter Principle in action. Get out and “manage by walking around”? Likely still has some potential for more upward movement…

    The computer/Internet/incompetent manager triad has sucked up all the slack in productivity, and likely eaten much of the gains that the first two members might have created.

    Time was, the tools were simpler and far less sophisticated; you could not do the things we do routinely with the tools that obtained within most organizations as recently as the 1980s. I joined an Army where much of the low-level admin was done on paper, with manual typewriters and mimeograph machines. You could not whip out new training schedules on a whim, and you actually had to trust your subordinates to be doing the right thing, rather than trying to micromanage their time in 15-minute increments throughout the day, every day, planned six weeks out and utterly inflexible.

    Bringing on board the computer enabled vices akin to those battalion and brigade commanders in Vietnam who’d enjoyed orbiting the sites of engagements by platoons, giving advice and creating confusion by helicopter. They had the illusion of control, but what they were actually doing was preventing any learning taking place, and stifling initiative. Same-same when they’re doing “management by email” today–And, their feckless demands for actions and information result in very little productive efforts going on, as the subordinates are too busy answering the last set of requirements.

    You know you’re in organizational trouble when you actually have to start having meetings to plan your meetings, and you’re spending two or three times the amount of time on planning something than actually doing it. These are vices enabled and encouraged by the computer, and if you’re wondering where all that “lost” productivity went, it vanished into the black hole of someone’s email in-box.

    Time was, executives spent their time executing things, and left producing correspondence and documentation up to a pool of secretaries and typists. We gave them computers so that they could do their own work, and wondered why the hell they were doing less of it, and producing more work for others down below them in the food chain.

    If I were in charge…? I’d take every computer away from every executive, and tell them to get the hell out of their offices, instead of living in them. The work that we’ve now happily passed on to the managerial class, which used to be done by dedicated professionals in the graphics department and secretarial pools? We really ought to consider what that sort of thing is really rewarding and encouraging, then examine if it is actually worth what we’re paying for it. I would submit that an executive we’re paying hundreds of thousands of dollars salary to ought not be answering correspondence, and that it might be a bit more sensible and actually productive to have that correspondence answered by a secretary we’re paying tens of thousands of dollars to.

    Army used to teach something called “supply discipline”, enforcing the idea that you didn’t want to have your units requesting and maintaining too much in the way of local supplies. That vice caused all sorts of problems throughout the organization. What we have today is a similar sort of thing, wherein we have a need for what might best be termed “information discipline”, and expressed by minimizing the demands for information and inane reporting requirements from lower in the food chain.

    Not to mention, we need a lot more trust in the lower elements in the hierarchy, and an acknowledgment that the executive cannot control everything down at the loading-dock level. He has to give up that desire, that lust for control, in order to let things work down at that level. The more control you strive to take, the less you’ll actually have, and the more ineffective your organization will be.

  4. “The work that we’ve now happily passed on to the managerial class, which used to be done by dedicated professionals in the graphics department and secretarial pools?”

    Years ago, the CEO of a software company remarked that “the main thing we’ve done with the computer revolution so far is to convert highly-paid executives to incompetent clerk-typists.” To which we could add incompetent graphics artists.

    A good secretary/executive assistant can be worth her weight in platinum, and I’ve been fortunate to have a couple of such.

  5. ‘Not to mention, we need a lot more trust in the lower elements in the hierarchy, and an acknowledgment that the executive cannot control everything down at the loading-dock level.”

    Elon Musk recently talked about a manufacturing situation in which he was trying to optimize an assembly process, and eventually discovered that the process, and the part it was installing, were not really needed at all. My reaction is that that’s nice, but it would be nicer if Tesla had a Director of Production Engineering or some such who could have addressed the problem without the need for it to come to the Musk level.

    It is true that there is a problem with CEOs and other senior executives who don’t understand their companies’ technology sufficiently, but there are also problems in the other direction, especially in founder-led companies, where all seriously creative work is assumed to be something that the founder/CEO needs to do himself and the other people in the company are merely “arms and legs”…as Goethe’s Faust put it, in the context of his vast land-reclamation project, “One mind is ample for a thousand hands”

  6. I have a small anecdote to add. “Managed Care” was the first attempt to control physicians and therefore the cost of health care. This involved large bureaucracies and coping with them was an adventure. At one point in the late 80s, I realized I had 276 contracts with various entities from HMOs to PPOs to insurance companies. Each had different requirements regarding the care of their members. This was emphasized when I was fined $500. for sending an HMO member to the “wrong” laboratory for a $16 wound culture. I finally bought a computer medical records system for $30,000. This allowed my staff to enter the required rules for each patient so that we would not send someone to the “wrong” place again. All this for one surgeon with a staff of three,

    This phenomenon is what allowed Obamacare to force almost all doctors into becoming employees of hospitals. The cost of an EMR system to a pediatrician whose HMO patients paid about $10. per office visit was enough to cow the bravest. Bravery, of course, was not prominent among pediatricians even then. The University of Arizona medical center got so over invested in an EMR system that they faced bankruptcy and sold the medical center to a for profit outfit called “Banner Health Systems, which runs the UMC to this day. Many faculty members left as a result of the new rules restricting patient visits and time spent with patients in those visits.

    Obamacare completed the takeover. The EMR takes about 25% of most physicians’ time and some are now employing “scribes” to enter data. All in the name of cost saving and efficiency.

  7. One of the problems when you build an automatic system is that you generally multiply the number of failure modes. In an aircraft, there is now not only the risk of the engine failing, there’s the risk that part of the flight management system (auto pilot) will malfunction and decide to shut the engines down. Here’s a video that does a pretty good job of illustrating that as well as the long chain of contingencies that can cause problems.

    The pilots not only have to be responsible for what they do but also for making sure nothing else is going on that they had never intended.

    The 737MAX is another example.

  8. A triumph of people over systems. Not completely on topic, but I thought you might find it funny.

    First news: Bloody terrorists moved to Lashkargah
    Second news: Islamist barbarians are marching to Herat
    Third news: Militants entered Kandahar.
    Fourth news: The Taliban forces have taken over Mazar-i-Sharif.
    Fifth news: The liberators supported by the people are approaching Bagram.
    Sixth news: The prophet-blessed forces of the Mujahideen are expected today in their faithful Kabul.

  9. MCS…found this analysis of the Turkish Air accident here:

    Autothrottle system in use did not include a comparator between the two radar altimeters.

    The report refers to an “ILS approach,” not an “ILS Category II approach”, so presumably, the weather conditions were such that the approach and landing could have been hand-flown.

  10. David,
    That’s the problem with the number two. When you have a doubly redundant system where one disagrees with the other, the only reasonable automatic response is to shut down both, there’s no way for the system to tell which has failed. In this case, the pilots had the option of choosing which one was working and the information to do it. The senior pilot had noticed that his altimeter had failed when they took off. Through a long set of circumstances, they enabled the wrong one without realizing it.

    Another anecdote: My brother flew with Turkish pilots and said they seemed to prefer crashing to going around on a missed approach, in his experience leading to some very hard landings. They could have requested clearance to a holding pattern when they first noticed a problem before the final leg of the approach and sorted it out at leisure.

    You really should look at the video, the narrator is a 737-800 pilot and can get down to the finer details.

    My larger point was that the automatic systems add a huge layer of complexity and often the biggest challenge in some sort of situation is fighting through a blizzard of warning lights, klaxons and now shouted exhortation to find out what is really happening and why. In air disasters, the root cause often seems to be that the pilots were so distracted that they simply forgot to fly the airplane.

  11. MCS…watched the video, pretty well-done. Also looked up the report from the Dutch safety board: pretty grim reading.

    The flight crew initially tried to set up the autopilot/autothrottle for a dual-channel approach, but the left autopilot wouldn’t enable, presumably because it didn’t like that data it had been getting from the radio altimeter on its side. So they continued with the right-side autopilot only, which was allowable in the extant weather conditions.

    What they apparently didn’t know, or didn’t think of at the time, was that the autothrottle could in these cases continue to get its altitude data from the left side RA…not exactly intuitive, and the safety board said that lack of information on this point appeared to be common among airline crews at this time.

    See my post When Humans and Robots Communicate, which discusses several other automation-related accidents and incidents.

  12. The most common example of design failure is the now ubiquitous automatic headlights on cars. With electronic dash boards, the only indication that the headlights are on or off is a minor change in the illumination level if that and the position of the switch. Many driver simply put the switch in auto mode and never think about it again. If the switch is changed, they tend not to notice until it is brought forcefully to their attention. With lighted streets, it’s not hard to overlook the lack of headlights. Of course an equally important function of the headlights is to provide visibility to other drivers. The forceful reminder I talked about above is very often another car making a left turn into your path because you were in stealth mode.

    Then there’s the “auto driving” where the driver is supposed to pay close enough attention to tell when it has for some reason aimed him squarely at a overpass abutment and steer back on track.

    When I design a control system, I can make a list of the things that will cause the maser control relay or contactor to open, removing all sources of power from a machine and possibly trigger a fire suppression system. You not only have to get it to do what you wnt, you have to keep it from doing something stupid or, even harder, letting the operator tell it to do something stupid.

    Simply shutting everything down is not a good option for an airplane in flight since you can’t control the potential energy of velocity and height above ground. This is why pilots spend a lot of time and money on training. As planes have become orders of magnitude more safe, engines rarely fail, wings don’t fall off, the few remaining accidents sometimes come to hinge on a line or two on page 393 of the flight manual, exactly which switches and in exactly which order they were thrown.

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