Purring like contented kittens, the most remarkable support crew ever assembled kept unceasing vigil last week as Gemini spun through space with its two passengers. At Cape Kennedy and at the space complex in Houston, at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and at 14 other sites from the Canary Islands to the South Indian Ocean, dozens of electronic computers guided, watched, advised and occasionally admonished the two astronauts. In fact, the Space Age's first orbiting digital computer, a hatbox-sized model that can make 7,000 separate calculations a second, went along for the ride in Gemini. No space effortAmerican or Russianhad ever before made such extensive use of the computer, or depended more on it.
The computer is, in fact, the largely unsung hero of the thrust into space. Computers carefully checked out all Gemini's systems before the launch, kept precise track of the spacecraft's position in the heavens at every moment, plotted trajectories and issued precise commands to the astronauts. On their detailed instructions, the astronauts made the first change of orbit ever achieved in flight; computers not only designed the new orbit, but also told the command pilot at what time and for how long he should fire his thrusters to achieve it.
While man's exploration of space would be impossible without computers, the biggest changes worked by these remarkable machines are taking place right on earth. Just out of its teens, the computer is beginning to affect the very fabric of society, kindling both wonder and widespread apprehension. Is the computer a friend or enemy of man? Will it cause hopeless unemployment by speeding automation, that disquieting term that it has brought into the language? Will it devalue the human brain, or happily free it from drudgery? Will it ever learn to think for itself?
The answers will not be in for quite a while, but one thing is already clear: swept forward by a great wave of technology, of which the computer is the ultimate expression, human society is surely headed for some deep-reaching changes.
"The electronic computer," says Dr. Louis T. Rader, a vice president of General Electric, "may have a more beneficial potential for the human race than any other invention in history." As viewed by Sir Leon Bagrit, the thoughtful head of Britain's Elliot-Automation, the computer and automation will bring "the greatest change in the whole history of mankind." The public, too, has begun to sense the power of the computer for good and evil. Cartoonists delight in giving computers robotlike stature and minds of their own that like to play tricks on ordinary mortals, and computers have been made the mute but decisive villains of three recent bestselling novels. The science of computers, called cybernetics after the Greek word for steersman, is the subject of an endless round of study and discussion devoted to pondering both the problems and opportunities that confront what social scientists call "the cybernated generation."