October 16, 2009
While scientists on the LCROSS mission puzzle over why none of the world’s telescopes apparently saw squat during last week’s much-ballyhooed lunar impact (although it now appears the spacecraft did), here’s a happier story.
The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter recently took this lonely photo of the Surveyor 1 spacecraft sitting on the moon’s surface, exactly where it touched down 43 years ago.
Surveyor 1, in case you’ve forgotten, was the first U.S. spacecraft to make a soft landing on another world, on June 2, 1966. The Soviet Luna 9 mission had done the same thing four months earlier, and had sent back a couple dozen pictures of its surroundings—humanity’s first look at the moon’s surface, after centuries of wondering.
Surveyor, though, was far more sophisticated than Luna 9, and returned 11,000 photos (see the gallery below). Nobody was more surprised at its success than the people who built it. Before launch, the newspapers had been full of stories about Surveyor’s budget problems, delays, and management squabbles between NASA headquarters, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Hughes Aircraft, which built the lander for JPL.
On landing day, none of that mattered. The thing worked perfectly.
Oran Nicks, who headed NASA’s lunar and planetary program at the time, was in the control room at JPL. He later recalled, “I was prepared for the worst as telemetry reports came in.” When the craft touched down, “I could hardly believe it, but then, before long, the first pixels of a TV frame showed the footpad on the surface.”
Among those who had doubted Surveyor’s chances of success was Max Faget, the designer of the Mercury capsule, who at the time was working on the Apollo program at NASA’s Manned Space Center in Houston. Faget had bad-mouthed the JPL robot lander on more than one occasion, and had told an influential Congressman that it wasn’t necessary as a precursor to Apollo’s manned landings. After Surveyor 1 touched down safely, Nicks recalled, “Max called me at NASA Headquarters to congratulate us and to say that he hadn’t believed we could bring off an unmanned landing, especially not on the first try. Though we reveled in Max’s ‘eating crow,’ we respected him greatly and took his words as high praise for our mission’s work.”
In fact, Surveyor 1 showed that the Apollo landings were possible, and that a three-legged lander wouldn’t sink in deep lunar dust, as a few alarmists had feared. The news and the photos got front page play, and it seemed in June 1966 that the Americans had pulled ahead of the Soviets in their race to the moon.
William Pickering, who was then the director of JPL, told an interviewer years later, “I felt the Apollo people should have been more interested in [Surveyor] than they were, but they said ‘Good landing,’ that’s all.”
Everyone knew that Apollo was NASA’s headline act, and that the Surveyor robots (four more landed on the moon between 1966 and 1968) were just bit players. But for a couple of years JPL had the moon to itself, and its engineers couldn’t help feeling smug. Recalled Pickering, “We were strongly tempted to put a sign on Surveyor that said, ‘Follow me,’ but we didn’t ever do it.”