LUNAR IMPACT: A History of Project Ranger

Part I. The Original Ranger


Only Ranger 5, the last of the Block II machines, remained to secure the primary objectives of lunar science. Beyond that, attention focused on the objectives for Rangers 6 through 9. Simmering at NASA Headquarters and at JPL during 1962 was the question: Would these missions indeed fly for science first and support Apollo second, or the other way around?


Having reorganized NASA in late 1961, James Webb possessed a management structure with which to prosecute both the nation's program of landing a man on the moon and the other varied activities of the space agency. Dividing the lunar program into manned and unmanned segments had made it necessary to strike arrangements to coordinate the dichotomous enterprise. But in January 1962 these arrangements had not yet been made, and they would riot be made before the end of the year. In the interim, Homer Newell and Brainerd Holmes, the directors of the two responsible NASA offices, managed affairs as best they could-in the interest of NASA and the country as each perceived it.

In March 1962, after the pro-science modification of the Ranger Block III objectives, Newell appeared before a Congressional Committee to speak in favor of NASA's budget authorization for the coming year. His Congressional questioners, less concerned than ever with any information that automatic spacecraft might gather to shed light on the origin of the solar system, were considerably interested in accelerating Project Apollo. They peppered him with queries about how much support the unmanned lunar program was providing to the manned. Disturbed by the reasoning that inspired these questions, Newell took time out to write a personal letter to Representative Joseph E. Karth, the Farmer-Labor Democrat from Minnesota's Fourth Congressional District in Saint Paul -Minneapolis, and the firm, personable Chairman of the Subcommittee on Space Sciences of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics.

"Space science, in addition to laying the groundwork for future activity in space," Newell told the Subcommittee Chairman, "is one area in the national space program where we [already] hold a clear lead over the Soviets, and in which we can continue to hold the lead if we maintain the vigor and breadth of our effort." It was imperative, he averred, that Congress "support space science for the sake of science, maintaining our faith that the practical benefits thereof will assuredly accrue." Newell added that a broad rather than narrow science program would best serve the admittedly crucial goal of a manned lunar landing. In any case, he insisted, space science was the ultimate raison d’ętre for all unmanned and manned lunar flights. Aside from competition with the Soviet Union, "the single greatest foreseeable reason right now for sending man to the moon and planets is to explore and investigate them..." 1

A month later, on June 7, at the first Senior Council Meeting of the Office of Space Sciences in NASA Headquarters, 2 Newell told his assembled field directors, including Pickering, that he intended to incorporate quality science on every flight. But the field directors wondered whether Newell's office or the Office of Manned Space Flight would determine and order the requirements for unmanned support of Project Apollo. The Office of Space Sciences might set these requirements, Charles Donlan of Langley Research Center observed, but it still seemed intent, on pursuing scientific objectives selected before landing a man on the moon had been established as a national goal. "Space Sciences," he continued, "was rather unbending in not getting scientific data which would assist the manned program." Donlan had touched the nub of the entire problem: What science would best serve Apollo and the overall NASA program? Apollo desperately needed information on the hardness of the lunar surface and the mechanics of soil erosion. A soil penetrometer experiment proposed by Langley for future Ranger missions had been designed to meet these needs, Donlan asserted, but it had already been rejected in favor of additional seismometer experiments. While the information requirements of Project Apollo "may not be quite as elegant in a scientific sense," he concluded, the Office of Space Sciences "should support the entire NASA program."

Was it not possible, Pickering inquired, to use the available funds of the Office of Space Sciences to support the ends and objectives of the manned program and at the same time advance the scientific program? If not, then Donlan was right: the Office of Space Sciences remained too heavily committed to pure science in the face of the national goal to land a man on the moon. In Pickering's view the objectives for Ranger Block III should be restored to those specified by Silverstein in 1961, with support of the manned program coming first, at least until its requirements were met. Still, Pickering continued, Apollo seemed too devoted to engineering without regard to space science. Some "melding" and accommodation between the two offices was called for.

Though resolving some of the management problems between field centers and Headquarters, the day-long meeting achieved no consensus on scientific objectives. Unfortunate as the lack of unanimity might be, Newell preferred it to altering the Headquarters scheme for unmanned lunar exploration. Newell and his colleagues also sensed that any melding of the manned and unmanned lunar programs in NASA would likely result in the total subordination of the Office of Space Sciences to Project Apollo. So long as the Office of Space Sciences planned a program and paid the bills, it intended to establish the scientific objectives for unmanned lunar flights. "Pure science experiments," Nicks reiterated, "will provide the engineering answers for Project Apollo." Besides, more immediately important than any melding with Apollo was the poor reliability so far demonstrated by the unmanned missions already budgeted. Ranger's overall track record, 0 for 4, was worse even than Nicks' estimate of one success in every three flights. Clearly, Newell and his deputy insisted to the Senior Council meeting, the project required more effort. 3

Two miles away, in a rented building on 19th Street, Brainerd Holmes and his colleagues in the Office of Manned Space Flight were busy deciding issues of their own. Project Apollo was the cynosure of NASA and the nation, 4 where everything-the Saturn rockets, the facilities that would house and launch them, and the funding-was of Brobdingnagian proportions. And the most compelling of the decisions faced by Apollo's managers in 1962, perhaps, pivoted on the method of staging to reach the moon: Would the astronauts rendezvous in earth orbit or in a lunar orbit? Until answered in July, that single question claimed the lion's share of attention of Holmes as well as NASA's top leaders. 5 The scientific priorities of Newell's unmanned lunar projects, even if each of them did cost several hundred million dollars, quite simply did not rate with these affairs in importance.

Holmes and deputies Joseph Shea and George Low pursued the objective of landing a man on the moon with a single mindedness of purpose. Every resource at NASA's command had to be bent to this task, and that included the unmanned lunar program. When Project Apollo needed data on lunar surface conditions from the unmanned flights, Project Apollo officials expected to specify these data. Bespeaking that need was the document Holmes issued on June 15, Requirements for Data in Support of Project Apollo, which declared that "the basic requirement for maximum United States accomplishment in the Apollo Project time period dictates that all space activity provide maximum support..." The document called for the unmanned lunar projects to furnish Apollo with three classes of information during the next three years. First, environmental data on fields and particles in space near the moon to assist in the design of spacecraft and ensure the safety of the Apollo crew in flight and on the moon. Second, information on the physical characteristics of the lunar surface to confirm spacecraft landing gear designs. Third, photoreconnaissance and topographic data to permit early selection of Apollo landing sites and aid in surface operations. Nowhere in the text was the Office of Space Sciences mentioned. Rather, all NASA groups engaged in the unmanned lunar program were asked to "obtain the technological data specified... on a priority basis." 6

The message was straightforward enough, but the peremptory manner of its release and wording almost guaranteed ruffled feathers in Newells shop, not to mention the Office of Administrator Webb. 7 Not only had Holmes crossed well defined jurisdictional boundaries and demanded support, but he expected the Office of Space Sciences to perform the bulk of this work and pick up the tab without so much as a thank you. The repercussions rattled offices in Pasadena, where JPL, unlike most of the other field centers, was affected directly. James Burke was scarcely eager to repeat the discomposing experience of March, when he had been caught between the factions contesting over Ranger for science or Ranger for Apollo, between his manager-superiors at Headquarters on the one side and the project engineers at JPL on the other. But the Requirements for Data in Support of Project Apollo appeared to rekindle the issue of Ranger's primary purpose. Could Project Ranger serve-and please-two masters at once?

Pickering, Cummings, Burke, and Surveyor Project Manager Eugene Giberson considered that issue during the next week at JPL. If the unmanned lunar projects were to proceed in an orderly manner, they agreed, the respective Offices of Space Sciences and Manned Space Flight had to agree upon their objectives and priorities. In their opinion, moreover, considering the national commitment to a manned lunar landing, serving the immediate needs of Apollo seemed the only realistic approach to take. 8 In the following days, that view was reinforced by other pressing events. Despite the best of intentions, the secondary sky science experiments crammed onto Rangers 6 through 9 threatened the reliability of the spacecraft. 9 Plans for another block of five Ranger spacecraft seemed close to approval at NASA Headquarters, and fabrication of these vehicles would have to be contracted to an industrial firm if JPL was to avoid a manpower crisis. The experiments for them had to be selected with clear objectives in mind. In this connection, the Aeronutronic firm, which had all but completed work on the original lunar seismometer capsules, wanted to know if it should disband its team of personnel or prepare to make more of the hard-landing capsules for future Rangers.

On June 29, 1962, Cummings flew East to discuss these questions with his counterparts in the Office of Space Sciences. Project Ranger, Cummings said, needed to be streamlined technically and in terms of objectives. Future spacecraft should be contracted to industry, and the secondary experiments at least limited to those supporting Apollo requirements. As a first step, he strongly urged the Office of Space Sciences to take the lead and engage the active participation of the Office of Manned Space Flight in the unmanned lunar program, if possible with financial support, but at least in written ground rules for the conduct of Project Ranger. 10 Nicks and Cortright listened intently, but they ultimately rejected any role in their theater for the Office of Manned Space Flight.

Newell's people knew that Project Apollo already needed more funds than NASA had budgeted for it. Financial support of the unmanned program by the Office of Manned Space Flight thus seemed highly unlikely. Furthermore, the active participation of that office was liable to squeeze pure science out of all the lunar flights preceding Apollo-leaving as the final product only an engineering residue. Evidently annoyed by JPL's willingness to risk that outcome, Newell and his staff resented the Laboratory's resistance to their direction as weH as its enthusiasm for Apollo requirements. Besides, Ranger's distressing flight record to date hardly seemed to match the reputation for excellence in science and engineering of JPL-Caltech. If Pickering, Cummings, and Burke still doubted the wisdom of those responsible for establishing Ranger priorities, Newell, Cortright, and Nicks shared growing reservations over JPL's management of Ranger.


JPL's difficulties were compounded in July 1962, when its first Mariner R flight to Venus ended in disaster because a "hyphen" had been omitted from the launch vehicle guidance equations. Shortly before the launch, Texas Democrat Albert Thomas had questioned NASA plans to renew its contract with Caltech to operate the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for another three years. This nonprofit operation, he charged, allowed NASA to "end run" Civil Service pay scales for non-government research talent. This method of government contracting for research and development with an institution of higher learning, moreover, did not seem to be producing the results expected of it. It might be better, he suggested, to separate the Laboratory from Caltech and operate the installation as a NASA field center under Civil Service regulations. Caltech President Lee A. DuBridge promptly rebutted the suggestion in a letter to Webb, but the letter did not completely satisfy Thomas. 11 On July 24, two days after the Mariner disaster, Republican James Fulton admonished D. D. Wyatt, NASA Director of the Office of Programs, on the poor record of unmanned space flight. The first Mariner R alone cost the taxpayers close to $14 million. "We should," Fulton declared, "be beyond this stage. 12

At 2:53 am EDT, August 27, 1962, another JPL Mariner R-it was designated Mariner 2-rose from Launch Complex 12 at Cape Canaveral. Another Atlas guidance malfunction occurred, momentarily appeared to doom the mission, but was miraculously overcome just in time for the separation of the Agena second stage (Figure 58). Soon Mariner 2 was on its way to Venus. In the following hours, then days, the spacecraft obediently extended its solar panels and high-gain antenna, acquired the sun and earth, stabilized in space, and flawlessly executed a necessary midcourse correction maneuver. Postmidcourse trajectory computations indicated a projected "miss distance" of approximately 41,000 km (25,476 miles), well within the operating limits of two onboard experiments designed to measure conditions in Venus' atmosphere and on its surface during the flyby encounter on December 14, 1962.


Fig. 58. The Mariner R Spacecraft and Launch Vehicle

The expected mission success blunted Congressional criticism, restored confidence in and at JPL, and ratified the soundness of the basic Ranger design. At that moment, however, the international implications seemed most important. Though the Soviets had orbited the first satellite and the first man around the earth, now Americans led them in planetary exploration-at least on the way to Venus. 13 But NASA insiders knew that the objectives and priorities for the lunar Rangers 6 through 9 remained as clouded as ever. Both the Office of Manned Space Flight and the Office of Space Sciences continued to insist that their own requirements be served first. The position of Pickering, Burke, and Cummings at JPL-engineering first, then science-received support on August 10, 1962, when the Space Science Board of the National Academy concluded in a report: "As [Apollo's] engineering tasks are accomplished..., scientific investigations and missions will also be phased into the program; and, as flexibility and sophistication are achieved, scientific investigations will become the primary goals. Appreciation of these concepts is of critical importance to the acceptance of the current Apollo program by scientists throughout the country..." 14 But however welcome the Board's conclusion, it did not advance the JPL position at Headquarters.

Although NASA Headquarters had tentatively approved extending Project Ranger to include five more vehicles (Rangers 10 through 14), Newell's office had them programmed for science first, Apollo support second. And despite the shortage of personnel at JPL and an even more acute shortage of space, the vehicles, Nicks informed the Laboratory, were "to be assembled and tested in house [at JPLI with some increased divisional contractor support allowed." 15 JPL faced a manpower crisis in the months ahead as well as the likelihood of prolonged contention at Headquarters over Ranger's objectives between the manned and unmanned factions. The Laboratory's position in NASA's lunar program was fast becoming untenable.

On August 15, 1962, Pickering, acting to force the issue, wrote a letter to NASA Associate Administrator Robert C. Seamans, with copies to Newell and Holmes, alluding to the differences at Headquarters and their deleterious effects on JPL. AD of the questions raised by the extension of Project Ranger, he asserted, related to a more basic one: "How should the unmanned lunar efforts be shaped to produce maximum benefit to the manned Right program?" He went on:

I do not believe it appropriate for JPL to seek to exploit the differing points of view within the Office of Space Sciences and Office of Manned Space Flight in an effort to advance our own point of view as to what constitutes a viable and useful program. I would greatly prefer that you and I, Homer Newell, and Holmes or Shea reach agreement and then instruct our people accordingly. We at JPL are now in favor of a faster-paced and technically simpler program than the ones that we have in the past advocated or at least accepted..., and we strongly support the...[Space Science Board] recommendation that lunar environmental and engineering data for Apollo design be sought with urgency and even, if necessary, at the expense of data having greater intrinsic scientific value. 16

If Seamans or Webb had been unaware of any differences before, they knew about them now. 17

Over a month later, Seamans called a meeting of Pickering, Newell, and Holmes for October 11. 18 At the meeting itself, which included Nicks, Seamans stressed that Newell and Holmes were to coordinate their respective unmanned and manned lunar programs. Both sides agreed that the extension of Project Ranger could contribute toward the goal of landing a man on the moon. At Seamans' request, Nicks explained how Holmes’ needs might be met through the future Ranger television and capsule missions. Holmes asked that plans for these missions be coordinated with his deputy, Joseph Shea. Finally, Seamans instructed Nicks to act as the coordinator between the two programs, and to report on the "probable contribution" that the unmanned lunar program would make to Apollo. 19 Having been asked by the NASA Associate Administrator to cooperate in this area with the Office of Manned Space Flight, officials of the Office of Space Sciences had no choice but to proceed as directed. Pickering, pleased, considered the meeting a breakthrough. In Project Ranger, so everyone seemed to have agreed, Apollo's requirements shared a priority at least equal to those of space science. 20

Holmes and Newell added further to this impression a few days later, when they announced formation of a Joint Working Group of representatives from each of their offices. The group was to be responsible for "recommending a detailed program of scientific exploration to the Office of Manned Space Flight, recommending to the Office of Space Sciences a program of data acquisition to assure a timely flow of environmental information into the planning for manned projects, and establishing and maintaining close liaison with field centers, government agencies, and universities in the development of an integrated scientific program for manned space flight." 21 Named Chairman of the Joint Working Group: Eugene Shoemaker, co-experimenter on the Ranger television system and a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. Agreement among all of the affected organizations on the objectives for future Ranger missions now appeared possible. Ranger 5 might also aid the manned lunar program immediately; the scientific information it was supposed to transmit, especially the television pictures and data from the radar altimeter, could help confirm the design of the Apollo lunar lander.


Ranger 5’s launch had been scheduled in June 1962, but the interposition of the Mariner R mission to Venus had forced a delay until October, 22 which allowed project engineers more time to solve the technical malfunctions of the previous flight. Nevertheless, the reason for the failure of the central computer and sequencer, as Burke had guessed, could not be determined with certainty because of the missing spacecraft telemetry during the crucial period over the South Atlantic. Adding to the puzzlement, the electronic brain had been operated for some 700 hours in tests at Cape Canaveral and JPL; this vital component had been continually cycled as the spacecraft passed each of its tests without experiencing a catastrophic failure. 23 Engineers who examined the available Agena and Ranger telemetry tapes ascertained the approximate time of failure: it had occurred during the few seconds between electrical separation of the spacecraft and Agena, when the Agena umbilical plug was detached and the "power-up" command issued to the spacecraft transmitter by the central computer and sequencer. The subsequent performance of Ranger 4 pointed to the inverter or transformer units in the electronic brain as the sources of the failure; the units had most likely short-circuited. 24 The short-circuiting, in turn, was suspected to have been caused by a tiny, undetected flake of aluminum or gold floating in the zero gravity and touching two "hot" pins on the exposed umbilical separation connector. 25

As a result of these findings, a number of changes were made in Ranger 5. Diodes and fuses were added to isolate the "hot" lines in the connector. With weight limitations no longer a problem, engineers added a backup clock to ensure that the telemetry would be provided with synchronizing pulses even in the event of a malfunction of the electronic brain. Another nitrogen gas bottle was added to the attitude control system to decrease pressures in the cold gas system, and backup pyrotechnics were added to the propulsion system to guarantee ignition of the midcourse engine. 26 All of these changes were, of course, for the single purpose that Ranger 5 would not fail.

The project office also changed the temporary space flight control facility at JPL. The communications control room received new teletype and voice conference systems designed to reduce operator errors. Closed-circuit television consoles were installed in adjoining rooms to permit flight controllers to view incoming data. At Goldstone and the deep space radio tracking stations overseas, the voice conference circuits were modified to allow controllers to talk on several nets at once. Patrick Rygh replaced Marshall Johnson, who had been assigned full time to manage the design and construction of the permanent Space Flight Operations Facility at the Laboratory, as Ranger Space Flight Test Director. Rygh, an aeronautical engineer and graduate of Caltech, would work directly with Burke during future Ranger flights (Figure 59).


Fig. 59. JPL Space Flight Control Center Readied for Ranger 5 

(Patrick Rygh is Stated at the Center Console.)

One change was not made. Like its predecessors, Ranger 5 had been heat sterilized, and that deeply disturbed the man charged with the sterilization program, Rolph Hastrup. To his mind, there was no longer any question that heat sterilization seriously degraded the performance and life expectancy of equipment in the Block II machines. On July 25, 1962, he expressed these fears to George Hobby, who had originally developed the JPL lunar sterilization procedures. "We are...paying a substantial sterilize all of our lunar spacecraft," Hastrup asserted. "The application of sterilization procedures such as the dry heat cycle presents a serious risk to reliability..." Whether instituted to placate scientists or to perfect techniques to be used on planetary landers, Ranger's sterilization requirements had to be relaxed, and the public "informed beforehand" so it "would not be ‘shocked’ by the situation." 27

Despite his initial advocacy of the procedure, heat sterilization was now a sore topic with Burke, who was also increasingly concerned over its effects on the performance of electronic components. But the die had been cast for Ranger 5. In the project office, what appeared most important now was ensuring the performance of critical equipment on Rangers 6 through 9. Burke and Ranger Spacecraft System Manager Wolfe had a new spacecraft test model assembled electrically equivalent to Ranger 6, and asked for more exceptions to heat sterilization of crucial components. Pickering agreed. JPL requested and NASA Headquarters granted more waivers, exempting from heat sterilization all of the important electrical cable harnesses in these spacecraft, the six RCA television cameras, and the critical electronic brains as well. Pickering also advised Newell that the heat sterilization procedure was believed seriously to reduce the reliability of the central computer and sequencer. He pointed to the possible significance of the failure of Ranger 4 having been traced to the computer-sequencer array or its related power modules. But any waiver of sterilization for the computer and sequencer would cover only Ranger 8 and later spacecraft, since earlier spacecraft modules had already been sterilized. 28

Piecemeal waivers on important equipment, however, were not Hastrup's idea of how to proceed. On August 30 he dispatched a nine-page memo to Cummings, expatiating further on the situation and recommending a more definite course of action. Experience to date, he observed, warrants "complete reappraisal of [U.S.] lunar sterilization policy." Many component failures detected in tests had positively been caused by heat sterilization. Tight schedules and a minimum of spare units often combined with component failures due to sterilization to force testing of the spacecraft without some of its flight hardware. In addition, in many instances the repairs required by the failures had been difficult to accomplish and had resulted in subsystems "basically less reliable than one which had not been ‘dug’ into."

The problems encountered in sterilizing Rangers 3 through 5, Hastrup warned, were being repeated on Rangers 6 through 9 on all items not already exempt from the dry heat cycle. The practices of "clean room" assembly in a dust-free environment and terminal sterilization of the spacecraft with ethylene oxide gas inside the Agena nose fairing should be continued, he concluded; however, heat sterilization had to be abandoned to assure the performance of lunar spacecraft. JPL should request NASA's permission to re-determine "the extent, if any, to which the lunar program would...carry on the development of sterilization procedures" for planetary exploration. 29 There could be no mistaking Hastrup's alarm, but Cummings would not recommend so radical a change to Pickering or to NASA Headquarters, at least not until the flight of Ranger 5 offered more evidence one way or another. 30

The Ranger 5 spacecraft left for Florida on August 20, arriving at Cape Canaveral on the day of Mariner 2s launching toward Venus. Atlas 215D and Agena 6005 arrived shortly thereafter, and all three machines began the cycle of tests leading to a launch on October 16. 31 At the Cape, the attention of project officials fixed on the Atlas and Agena. Except for the flight of Ranger 4, one or both of them had malfunctioned on every single Ranger and Mariner mission. The Atlas, most agreed, now represented the principal problem. "Testing and checkout [at Cape Canaveral] have revealed that none of the six Atlases delivered to NASA were flight worthy," Hans Hueter's staff asserted. "The problem is further magnified by the fact that the last Atlas delivered was no better than the first." 32 Atlas equipment discrepancies had delayed Ranger launches before, and all of the project personnel worked hard to ensure that none remained in Atlas 215D before the scheduled flight of Ranger 5.

Ranger's experimenters, the Deep Space Network, and the Space Flight Operation Teams, meantime, finished their preflight preparations. Despite the stated needs of Project Apollo, the objectives of space science still shaped this last original Ranger mission, and NASA's experimenters planned their operating priorities accordingly. In the event that the spacecraft missed the moon, obtaining data from the gamma-ray spectrometer would take precedence over taking television pictures of the surface. Further gamma-ray experiments, they recognized, were not scheduled for some time to come; an improved television system, on the other hand, would fly in 1963 on Rangers 6 through 9. 33

Equipment checkout and net integration tests at the deep space stations occurred while tracking of Mariner 2 continued. 34 After the launch of Ranger 5, these stations would track for both missions simultaneously. On October 11, JPL Deputy Director Brian Sparks issued guidelines for the space flight operations. In any situation where the deep space stations could support only one of the two missions, Ranger 5 would command priority. With one exception, all JPL computing facilities would also be placed at the disposal of Ranger 5, and the Control Area in the JPL Space Flight Operations Facility was to be used exclusively by Ranger 5 flight controllers during that three-day mission. 35

Officials terminated the launch countdown of Ranger 5 on October 16 when technicians discovered an electrical short circuit in the spacecraft radio transponder. Detached from the Atlas-Agena, Ranger 5 was returned to Hangar AE for a spare unit, in time for another launch attempt on October 17. It too was canceled, this time by high winds from Hurricane Ella, which loitered nearby in the Caribbean. The next day, October 18, was overcast. Surface winds, however, had decreased sufficiently for another launch attempt to begin. The vehicle passed all checks. The Atlas engines ignited at 12:59 pm EST, and Ranger 5 lifted from launch Complex 12 into a leaden sky (Figure 60). The roar of the Atlas engines subsided as the vehicle soared out of sight. Inside the JPL command post, Burke learned that the rate beacon in the Atlas guidance system had malfunctioned. The rocket, nevertheless, continued on course, responding to backup commands radioed to it from the Cape computer. The same Atlas failure had caused the loss of Mariner 1, but the proper "hyphen" in the guidance equations saved the day for Ranger.


Fig. 60. Ranger 5 Ignition

The spirits of project officials rose as all information received from the downrange stations proved positive. The launch vehicles separated, the Agena's engine ignited, and Ranger 5 coasted into its planned orbital path over the South Atlantic. Tracking ships, now equipped and located to preclude losing any Ranger telemetry downrange, confirmed the normal functioning of the machine in space.

The mobile tracking antenna acquired the spacecraft as it rose above the South African horizon a half-hour later, at 1:30 p.m. EST. Second bum of the Agena engine had occurred successfully, injecting Ranger 5 into its lunar transfer trajectory. A few minutes later the spacecraft was observed to separate from the Agena, and at 1:46 p.m. the large dish antenna in Woomera contacted Ranger 5 as it moved out and away from the earth. All the data continued excellent: Ranger had extended its solar panels, acquired the sun, begun generating solar power, and stabilized in orbit. In a short time Ranger's electronic brain would command the craft to extend its high-gain antenna and roll in search of the earth, and normal cruise operations would begin. Burke, Albert, and Cunningham conveyed the encouraging news to waiting newsmen. "All of us," Burke said, "are keeping our fingers crossed." 36

At 2:12 p.m. EST, the pleasure turned sour. At that moment the temperature in the power switching and logic module of the central computer and sequencer rose sharply; electrical power from Ranger 5s solar panels was lost Though the spacecraft switched to battery power, it performed erratically. The programmed command to turn on the gamma-ray experiment occurred, but Ranger's electronic brain did not issue the command to "acquire earth." To make matters worse, spacecraft telemetry now being received in the United States was garbled, making detailed analysis impossible. The telemetry-to-teletype encoders at the deep space stations in South Africa and Australia had both malfunctioned.

During the afternoon Burke, stunned, was on the phone with Space Flight Test Director Rygh at JPL (Figure 61). The Spacecraft Data Analysis Team reported that short-circuiting must have caused the loss of solar power. Even if that were true, however, knowing it now was of little help. The battery furnishing Ranger's electrical power would be exhausted within hours, ending operations of any kind. Together Burke and Rygh determined on an immediate midcourse maneuver to achieve lunar impact as an engineering test. Without earth reference, however, no one knew the true roll position of Ranger 5, and insufficient time remained to obtain it before the electrical power ran out. A midcourse maneuver, they decided therefore, would be conducted using only the sunline reference, and certain turns were excluded.


Fig. 61. Officials Assembled for the Ranger 5 Postlaunch Press Conference at Cape Canaveral. 

Left to Right: Friedrich Duerr, Major J. Mulladay, Lt. Col. Jack Albert, Kurt Debus, William Cunningham, and James Burke

Override commands extending the high-gain antenna away from its stowed position over the midcourse motor were radioed to Ranger 5 at 8:00 pm EDT from the deep space station in Johannesburg. The spacecraft reacted obediently. The maneuver execute command followed at 8:29 pm. The crippled machine acknowledged the message and began the novel thirty-minute maneuver sequence. Minutes later the craft experienced further electrical shorting, and telemetry ceased for 13 seconds, then came back on again. The midcourse maneuver could not be completed. The battery was drained. Half-way through the midcourse maneuver Ranger's radio transmitter fell silent, and, as its gyroscopes ran down, the spacecraft began to tumble.

Two days later, on October 21, the deaf and blind Ranger 5 cartwheeled past the trailing edge of the moon at an altitude of 720 kilometers (450 miles) and accelerated into solar orbit. The stations in the Deep Space Network continued to track the tiny battery-powered transmitter inside the seismometer capsule for a few days longer, until that minute signal dropped below the threshold of the sensitive receivers on earth. This time, the tense and shaken engineers and scientists at NASA and JPL refrained even from announcing a near-success. 37

Ranger 5 was a disaster. So too, it seemed, was the project.

Chapter 9  link to the previous page        link to the next page  Chapter 11

Chapter Ten - Notes

The hyphenated numbers in parentheses at the ends of individual citations are catalog numbers of documents on file in the history archives of the JPL library.

1. Letter from Homer Newell to Joseph Karth, April 10, 1962 (2-897).

2. Attending with Homer Newell were his deputy, Edgar Cortright, Chief Scientist John Clark, Lunar and Planetary Program Director Oran Nicks, and John Naugle, Alan Crocker, and John Nicolaides.

3. NASA Minutes of the First Senior Council for the Office of Space Sciences, June 7, 1962, pp. 4, 8-9, 13 (2-1051 ).

4. For example, see Richard Witkin, "Project Apollo: Man's Race For The Moon," The New York Times, July 30, 1962, p. 1 - The United States, Witkin asserted, was expected to beat the Soviets to a manned landing on the moon. But "whoever wins this race, it will be an event with no parallel in history. Not even Columbus' opening of the New World or the Wright Brothers' first flight had consequences as profound as may emerge from the first lunar voyage. " The comment is illustrative of the profound interest and anticipation shared by many Americans.

5. John M. Logsdon, NASA's Implementation of the Lunar Landing Decision (HHN 8 1, Comment Edition. Washington: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, August 1969), pp. 63-65 (5-259).

6. Office of Manned Space Flight, " Requirements for Data in Support of Project Apollo " (Issue No. 1. Washington: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, June 15, 1962), pp. 1, 17 (2-2064).

7. Holmes' methods in managing Apollo would soon lead him into a direct confrontation with an equally strong-willed James Webb, who acted as NASA Administrator in fact as well as in name. The showdown in time was settled by President Kennedy-in favor of Webb.

8. The JPL position is formally delineated in Clifford I. Cummings, Jet Propulsion Laboratory Lunar Program Guidelines (Engineering Planning Document No. 22. Pasadena, California: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, August 15, 1962).

9. See "After the Apollo Decision: What Science and Where?" and "Science Reasserted in Project Ranger" in Chapter Eight of this volume.

10. "I propose," Burke had advised JPL leaders," that we attack the third problem [manned vs. unmanned lunar exploration] by first trying to find out whether Newell and Holmes are as far apart as their subordinates seem to be. If they are, I suppose we will have to try to convince Dr. Seamans and Mr. Webb that there is a problem. If Newell and Holmes are not so far apart, we should sit down with Cortright and Shea to arrive at some written ground rules for the continued conduct of the Ranger Project." JPL Interoffice Memo from James Burke to William Pickering, Brian Sparks, and Clifford Cummings, subject: "Ranger 6-9 Bus Experiments, " April 18, 1962 (2-2539).

11. Cited in Lu Spehr, " Caltech Defends JPL Job, " Star News [Pasadena], July 22, 1962, p. 1.

12. Cited in "Congressman Criticizes Canaveral Space Failures," The Tampa Tribune, July 25, 1962.

13. Mission description in Mariner-Venus 1962, Final Project Report (NASA SP-59. Washington: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1965); H. J. Wheelock, Mariner Mission to Venus (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1963); and John Lear," The Voyage of Mariner 2 to Planet Venus," Saturday Review, January 5, 1963, pp. 87-91. The Soviet Venera 1 Venus spacecraft had failed to transmit radio signals a few days after its launch on February 12, 1961. A similar fate awaited the Soviet Mars I spacecraft launched shortly after Mariner 2, on November 1, 1962.

14. A Review of Space Research (Publication 1079, the Report of the Summer Study conducted under the auspices of the Space Science Board of the National Academy of Sciences at the State University of Iowa, June 17August 10, 1962. Washington: National Academy of Science-National Research Council, 1962), pp. 1-22.

15. TWX from Oran Nicks to Brian Sparks, July 20, 1962, p. 4 (2-1174); see also NASA Minutes of Seamans' OSS Review of 19 July 1962, prepared by John Nicolaides, July 20, 1962, p. 2 (2-1759). Although new buildings were under construction by 1962, many JPL employees remained in rented trailers. There was simply no place to put contractor personnel who would have to be detailed to JPL to learn about Ranger.

16. Letter from William Pickering to Robert Seamans, subject: "Ranger Project activities in support of manned lunar flight programs," August 15, 1962 (2-368).

17. While Pickering awaited a reply, on September 6, Cunningham issued the ground rules for the extension of Project Ranger: Ranger flights 10 through 14 would carry an improved set of RCA television cameras in 1964; four additional seismometer capsule missions (flights 15 through 18) were also tentatively scheduled for launch in 1965. The schedule assigned the objectives of the Office of Space Sciences first priority, support of Project Apollo second. NASA memorandum from William Cunningham to Oran Nicks, subject: "Ranger Mission Plans Following RA-14," September 6, 1962 (2-689). The Office of Space Sciences did not appear to contemplate any changes whatever.

18. Letter from Robert Seamans to William Pickering, September 24, 1962 (2-367).

19. NASA Memorandum for the Record from Oran Nicla, subject: "Ranger Project Activities Discussion on 11 October 1962, " November 15, 1962 ( 2 - 2331 ); see also JPL Interoffice Memo from Clifford Cummings and James Burke to William Pickering, subject: "Notes for October 11 Meeting of WHP, Newell, Holmes and Seamans," October 9, 1962 (2-2585).

20. NASA memorandum from Joseph Shea to Oran Nicks, subject: "Plans for Unmanned Lunar Orbiter Development, " October 23, 1962 (2-431).

21. NASA memorandum from Homer Newell and D. Brainard Holmes to Robert Seamans, subject: "Establishment of a Joint OSS/OMSF Working Group," October 22, 1962 (2-351); also the letter from D. Brainard Holmes to William Pickering, November 20, 1962 ( 11-95b); and NASA News Release No. 62-251, subject: "Unit to Coordinate Manned and Unmanned Space Flight," for release November 27, 1962 (11-97). For their part, Holmes, Shea, and Gilruth issued the Manned Spacecraft Center General Management Instruction 2-3-1: inflight Scientific Experiments Coordination Panel (October 15, 1962). Created as a counterpart to the Space Sciences Steering Committee in the unmanned program, the new panel acted to coordinate all scientific experiments proposed for manned missions, and was composed of members drawn from the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas, with an ex officio member from the Office of Space Sciences.

22. Official NASA Flight Schedule, September 19, 1961, as adjusted in OfficialNASA Flight Schedule, March 20, 1962 (2-968).

23. NASA Memorandum for the Files from Oran Nicks, subject "Trip to JPL April 24-26 (1962), " May 2, 1962, p. 3 (2-335).

24. JPL Interoffice Memo from A. E. Dickinson to Ranger-4 Distribution, subject: "Status of Ranger-4 Flight Analysis," May 8, 1962, in United States Congress, House, Committee on Science and Astronautics, Investigation of Project Ranger, Hearings before the Subcommittee on NASA Oversight, 88th Congress, 2nd Session, 1964, No. 3, pp. 489-492.

25. Space Programs Summary No. 37-16, Volume I for the period May 1, 1962, to July 1, 1962 (Pasadena, California: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, July 31, 1962), p. 34.

26. Space Programs Summary No. 37-17, Volume V1 for the period July 1, 1962, to October 1, 1962 (Pasadena, California: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, October 31, 1962), p. 8.

27. JPL Interoffice Memo from Rolf Hastrup to George Hobby, subject: "Consideration in the Establishment of Lunar Spacecraft - Sterilization Requirements," July 25, 1962 (2-1735).

28. TWX from William Pickering to Homer Newell, August 31, 1962 (2-1280). The waiver was approved in TWX from William Cunningham to Clifford Cummings, September 5, 1962 (2-1281).

29. JPL Interoffice Memo ERG # 146 from Rolf Hastrup to Clifford Cummings, subject: "Recommended Changes in Lunar Sterilization Policy, "August 30, 1962, pp.1, 6 (2-1277).

30. Cf., letter from Clifford Cummings to Homer Newell, September 28, 1962 (2-1692).

31. Space Programs Summary No. 37-15, Volume I for the period March 1, 1962, to May 1, 1962 (Pasadena, California: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, May 31, 1962), p. 8; Space Programs Summary No. 37-18, Volume I for the period September 1, 1962, to November 1, 1962 (Pasadena, California: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, November 30, 1962), p. 4.

32. NASA Agena Program Presentation, October 1, 1962, p. 1-6 (2-2269).

33. Harold Washburn, "Summary of Experimenters Meeting on Ranger 5," held September 25, 1962 (2-1284).

34. Nicholas A. Renzetti, Tracking and Data Acquisition for Ranger Missions 1-5 (TM 33-174. Pasadena, California: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, July 1, 1964 ), p. 5 7.

35. JPL Interoffice Memo No. 103 from Brian Sparks to Senior Staff, et al., subject: "Support for the RA 5 Mission," October 11, 1962 (2-266).

36. "Ranger 5 Lofted on Lunar Course," The Mew York Times, October 19, 1962, p.1-2.

37. Ranger 5 Flight Report (Engineering Planning Document 147. Pasadena, California: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, January 4, 1963); JPL Ranger 5 Technical Bulletin No. 1, October 19, 1962; James D. Burke, Preliminary Spacecraft Operations Letter, Ranger 5 (JPL Reorder 62-405. Pasadena, California: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, December 6, 1962); NASA memorandum from Homer Newell to James Webb, subject: "Ranger 5 Post-Launch Report No. 2," October 30, 1962, with attachment: NASA Memorandum for the Files from Walter Jakobowski, subject: "Ranger 5 Post Launch Report No. 2," October 26, 1962 (2-692); Space Program Summary No. 37-18, Volume I, pp. 2-8.

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