Apollo Guidance Computer History Project
September 6, 2002
Ed Copps' Introduction
ED COPPS: My name is Ed Copps. I have not been to one of these meetings before.. Because I haven't been here before, I'd just like to go back--I don't know really how you want to set the agenda. But, I would say that for me, I think some useful things-- to start a little bit farther back and say that I first went to work as a young person who had received his Bachelor's and Master's degree here at MIT. I worked at RCA for a while, and then came to work at the Instrumentation Lab on the Polaris Missile Project.
DAVID MINDELL: What course were you in?
ED COPPS: 16. I tried to focus on instrumentation and automatic control, which at that time consisted of mostly endless tedia of plotting locuses. Then I joined the Polaris project, which was not the topic of what we're discussing, but was in many ways the forerunner and --for the people at least--the experience base for Apollo. We were aware that other people in the Instrumentation Lab, particularly Milt Trageser and Dick Battin and so forth were marketing the laboratory to be a participant in the embryonic idea of Apollo, which had not really become a talked-about project. And they were successful in that. And in that stage, where the embryo was starting to form, I and several of these people were brought into that project.
The kinds of things we did were really remarkable and actually funny, and I'll just describe some of them. One of the things was we believed that one way to navigate was to be able to spot the edge of the earth from space, the rim of the earth and measure the angle of the rim with a sextant. Or, for that matter, the rim of the moon. And that would give you, in essence, a sextant measurement from space.
The question was: well, what would you see if you looked at the rim of the earth? And we would stand on chairs and landmarks s and there would be on the ground pictures of things we would have drawn to look at, and we would pretend that we were in space. Trying to do this measurement and trying to see what we would see, and whether we could see it and were there clouds and what would happen and so forth.
It was so primitive it was laughable, but, yet, it was actually the state-of-the-art. We were ahead of people. There was the question of noctilucent clouds, which were clouds that were rumored to be in the sky at altitudes of 150, 200 and 300 miles high. There were obscure papers written about these clouds, but nobody ever knew whether they were really there or not. But, if they were there, at that distance would they be mistaken for the rim of the earth? What would happen then?
And so we had these tremendous analytical calculations, which amounted to nothing because nobody had any data. And so that was the kind of stuff we started with. And within a short time, all of those kinds of issues coalesced and we became more coherent ourselves and the project became more coherent. We were the first people on the project before any of the aerospace companies were on the project. We were contractually first on the project.
I always thought that the purpose of the project was to wean the United States away from dependence on military technology. I thought that the country had come to such a state that--this is my own personal thought about it-- there had to be some way to divert the technology away from missile development into something that was perhaps more ennobling, if not more useful..
We did that. And I think that the thought that I just want to leave in my little talk here was that that process was actually easy. And I'll tell you why I think it was easy, because it was so well defined. It was not amorphous. If you want to have a problem, think about trying to deal with AIDS in Africa. Try to think about something that's a real problem. You know, it is one which is almost undefinable.
Whereas, on Apollo, it was perfectly clear what the objective was, what the time scale we had to do it in. And basically complicated as it was, everybody could find a place. It was easy to manage, although believe me, it had its problems. But, no manager I believe at any level was ever confused about what the objective was. And so to my mind, the job at Intermetrics was much more difficult and much more poorly done because it was so difficult.
We never really worried or defined it, because it was so much more difficult. What it was that Intermetrics should be doing and how to do it. So by comparison the thing that united people on Apollo here and throughout the whole project was essentially simple. Focus. Thank you.
DAVID MINDELL: Just to reiterate, we are very interested in your backgrounds and sort of education and how you got to where you were. And also in the subsequent trajectory of your careers and where they went. That's one of the things we're interested in also.
DAN LICKLY: I think Ed is too modest. Several things you should say--like I was on a boat recently, and they have three GPSs, and I said, "Remember Ed Copps? He's the father of GPS." And that was such an awful task and he fought for years with those guys in Holloman to develop the forerunner of GPS, whats now a GPS. I don't know the story because I wasn't on that, but he did a wonderful job under difficult circumstances. The other thing I want to say that echoes with what Ed said, I think everybody we knew at the Instrumentation Lab what the project was. We had a small contract for a study and then in August 1961, down in the cafeteria in Washington--John, you were there, right? They told Bob Chilton. Bob Chilton said, "You've got it. We're going to give it to you." And that was August ninth or something in 1961, and we were go from there. So they hadn't picked anything else yet when we started firing up to do that job.
ALEXANDER BROWN: How did the Instrumentation Lab get the Apollo contract?
DAN LICKLY: Well, we had to work first. At that time we were ... (inaudible). I don't know the political details. John?
JOHN MILLER: I think probably from the technical side of it, Milt Trageser had headed up a group to study going to Mars. So a lot of the concepts of guidance navigation and control had been done in this study. And we had the best marketing guy in the world in Draper, who had all the contacts at the highest levels. I mean, he knew Jim Webb and he knew Bob Seamans. He was the person that convinced NASA, that the problem of going to the moon, the guidance navigation and control aspects of it were so new and complicated that the laboratory was the only place that they could reliably go and get this done. So, Draper really sold it at the highest levels.
ED COPPS: I agree with that, but I'd also like to pass over to you and ask you the question in your study of the history--MIT, of course, with the Radiation Laboratory here in the Second World War and the history of the transition into a Cold War, in which people like, Draper, were in the inner circles of the technical issues and decisions that were made in the '40's and '50's, leading to the development of the missiles and the nuclear weapons and all that stuff.
I mean MIT was an inside player, it was just taken for granted that they were inside players. And so it was not surprising that they would have a role in something like that, although I can tell you they marketed--they did a full court press to get it.
I'm sorry again to push in, but that was my opinion. I was not at that level. I didn't see that happen personally, but I was at the second level, where I was called upon to talk about not going through clouds and to talk about whether or not this was a good thing to do or not, whether this was feasible or not. I was only 24 years old. We were truly kids.
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