LUNAR IMPACT: A History of Project Ranger

Part II. The New Ranger

Chapter Sixteen - THE WORST OF TIMES

Amid the more temperate media reaction, William J. Coughlin, the pro-business editor of Missiles and Rockets 1 pronounced Ranger 6 a "one-hundred percent failure." JPL’s record on Project Ranger, he insisted, was a disgrace; more offensive, NASA had paid the California Institute of Technology a $1.2 million fee in fiscal year 1964 to staff and operate the nonprofit laboratory responsible for the lunar debacle:

This may be exactly the heart of the problem. An academic environment is neither comparable nor conducive to the kind of hard-driving industrial atmosphere required to make complex space hardware function in a highly reliable manner. A price of $1.2 million for a leisurely university atmosphere and little else is exorbitant ... We think Congress should reopen the whole question of the JPL-relationship. 2

Of course Ranger 6 had not been a complete failure, but to other close observers, the television difficulty had also raised serious doubts about the supervision of Ranger by Homer Newell’s Office of Space Science and Applications. And like Coughlin, many insiders wondered about NASA’s methods of contracting for and managing research and development efforts through an institution of higher learning. Coughlin had branded the project itself a loser. Those in the space agency who could, carefully avoided any direct association with Ranger. A few publicly declared Ranger’s lunar pictures dispensable; Apollo, they asserted, could proceed without the assistance of NASA’s unmanned missions. 3

With the very justification of the remaining Ranger flights now called into question, the future of the project hung by the most tenuous of threads. Should it be canceled or completed in 1964? The answer to that question depended upon another investigation of the project by JPL and NASA officials, and upon the response from Congress (Figure 79).


Fig. 79. "You’re Shy - I’m Shy 28 Million Bucks" (Courtesy Fort Wayne [Indiana] News-Sentinel)


On Sunday morning, a few hours after the impact of Ranger 6, William Pickering appointed a JPL-RCA board of inquiry to investigate the malfunction of the television system. Television project engineer Donald Kindt, placed in charge, was directed to find the cause of the failure and recommend action to prevent its recurrence on Ranger 7. The next day, on February 3, 1964, Pickering appointed a second investigative body composed of JPL section chiefs and chaired by the "voice of Ranger 6," Walter Downhower. This group was to check on the "completeness" of the Kindt-led project investigation and act as "a review board to evaluate [its] conclusions and recommendations." 4 Pickering expected to have the findings and recommendations in time to modify Ranger 7 before its scheduled launch at the end of February.

The JPL investigation began auspiciously, with words of encouragement from Representative Joseph Karth, the subcommittee chairman of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics, who commented to reporters that it seemed reasonable for the project to continue. If only two of the three remaining Rangers were successful, he said, the effort would be "worth the money and time spent on it." Committee Chairman and California Democrat George P. Miller sent a personal note to Pickering reaffirming faith in NASA and JPL, and offering his opinion that the performance of Ranger 6 and the accuracy of its flight path truly had made that mission "an accomplishment of the first order." 5 To be sure, both men had become closely associated with and approved funds for Ranger over the years. With Laboratory morale at its nadir, the Congressional encouragement was most welcome.

Kindt and the JPL investigators quickly isolated the time of the failure: the sixty-seven seconds when the television telemetry had unaccountably turned on during ascent through the earth’s upper atmosphere. Electrical arcing in that critical pressure region, * they determined, had destroyed the high-voltage power supplies to the television cameras and their transmitters. But what caused it, and the enigmatic cessation and subsequent normal operation of the television telemetry on the way to the moon, defied simple explanation. Opinion at JPL was divided over several possible causes and, consequently, over what remedial action to take.

* Gaseous breakdown to a state of electrical conduction occurs most readily at the densities and pressures prevailing in the upper atmosphere.

On February 11 Pickering notified NASA Headquarters of the impasse and its potential negative effects. JPL’s investigation had not uncovered a single "definitive cause" of the television failure, he informed Newell, and the next Ranger launch should be postponed. "A firm decision on the rescheduling of Ranger 7 must await results of a study effort of several possible preventive steps and the effort and time required to mechanize them." Newell and Ranger’s managers in Washington had no choice but to agree. 6

A few days later, on February 14, the JPL investigating board issued its final report. 7 Although providing more details, it came no closer to a consensus on the precise chain of events or their cause. Low battery voltages proved that power had been used by more than simply the cruise mode telemetry during pan or all of the sixty-seven seconds. The television system, it was concluded, had indeed come on prematurely, perhaps because the internal command switch had advanced several steps, or because of shorting across exposed pins contained in the external umbilical connector on the Agena nose fairing. In the latter instance, arcing between a battery pin and the nearby pin of the sensitive television command circuit used to monitor the television system on the launch stand could have activated the system. But neither electrostatic discharge nor any other mechanism that might trigger arcing across these pins had been uncovered. The most probable explanation, the JPL board therefore concluded, was that the system "turned on by a movement of the command switch into its warmup mode... Following the turn-on, three additional movements of the command switch returned it to position zero, disconnecting the arcing components from the battery and conditioning the command system for a normal sequence of events ..." 8

On the basis of these findings, the board recommended to Schurmeier’s project office six measures to prevent a recurrence of the failure on subsequent flights:

1. Modify the Ranger television turn-on circuitry to lock out any possible turn-on signal. Mechanical separation of the spacecraft from the Agena vehicle in earth orbit should activate the circuitry, permitting turn-on to be accomplished. (A second option included eliminating the four-step command switch and replacing it with a different one.)

2. Reduce to a minimum the number of electrical leads from the Agena nose fairing umbilical connector through the spacecraft to the television system. (All leads that could trigger a turn-on were to be eliminated or have resistors added.)

3. Modify the Ranger television telemetry to transmit data on system performance during the warmup period near the moon.

4. Conformally coat all exposed terminals in the television system, and pot or sleeve any exposed connector pins to minimize the possibility of an accidental short.

5. Perform a pin retention test on all connectors.

6. If found necessary, provide venting of the television subsystem assemblies. 9

The investigative report and its technical recommendations, approved by Downhower’s watchdog group, were then turned over to the NASA board of inquiry that would make the final recommendations for Ranger’s future.


NASA’s Ranger 6 Board of Review was formed on February 3, 1964, by Associate Administrator Robert Seamans rather than by Homer Newell, whose Office of Space Science and Applications was responsible for the faltering Ranger. A brief news release stated that the NASA board would review, independently, "the failure analyses and corrective procedures being developed by JPL," and make "appropriate recommendations on the conduct of the remainder of the Ranger flight program." 10 The four men whom Seamans named to the Ranger 6 board had little or no direct association with the project or the Office of Space Science and Applications. Francis Smith was the respected chief of the instrument research division at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Herman LaGow, a former member of the Kelley Board and physicist with twenty years at the Naval Research Laboratory and NASA, headed the systems review group at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Eugene Dangle, the board’s secretary, brought experience as a Technical Programs Officer in the Headquarters Office of Program Plans and Analysis. Walter Jakobowski, Bill Cunningham’s Ranger Program Engineer, served ex-officio to help familiarize board members with the project but as Seamans made clear, not as a voting member. As chairman, Seamans selected his own Deputy Associate Administrator for Industry Affairs, Earl D. Hilburn. 11

A self-made 43-year-old executive, Hilburn had acquired a reputation as an effective manager in industry, most recently as vice-president and general manager of the Electronics Division of the Curtiss-Wright Corporation. Seamans had picked Hilburn to consolidate and oversee NASA procurement policies and practices, particularly to encourage the use of incentive contracts instead of the cost-plus-fixed-fee type. Almost immediately after Hilburn had joined NASA six months earlier, 12 Webb assigned him the task of reviewing the contractual relationship between Caltech, JPL, and NASA. The prevailing contract reflected JPL tradition, which was to operate rather independently of its governmental sponsor under the academically managerial protection of Caltech. Hilburn recommended including a number of terms in a new contract to tighten NASA’s control over the Laboratory and, with Webb’s backing, forced most of them through against vigorous objections from Caltech and JPL. Now Hilburn, something of a bête noire at the Laboratory, was to command NASA’s evaluation of Ranger 6, much to the dissatisfaction of the scientists and engineers in Pasadena (Figure 80).


Fig. 80. NASA Deputy Associate Administrator for Industry Affairs Earl Hilburn

The NASA Headquarters review board - shortly to become known as the "Hilburn Board" - convened on Thursday, February 6, in Washington. The next day the board members met in Pasadena, and began one week of evaluating and discussing JPL’s Ranger 6 findings and recommendations. Hilburn, a manager before he was a technician, soon found himself deeply troubled by the various explanations under debate at JPL. The absence of a single "definitive cause" of the television failure suggested to him that more than a simple technical problem was involved. If JPL project and division personnel had overlooked a marginal design - indeed a design flaw - in the umbilical connector on the Agena nose fairing, might not other parts of the RCA television system and the JPL spacecraft likewise be impaired? Project Manager Schurmeier and his JPL associates remained convinced that the electrical arcing, triggered by a single unknown event, had "cascaded" in the low pressure and density of the upper atmosphere so as to bum up the television high-voltage power leads. But was it not just as reasonable to suppose that two or more discrete failures resulting from design and testing deficiencies had occurred nearly simultaneously?

On February 14, the day that JPL investigators issued their final report, the members of the NASA Ranger 6 Review Board presented their preliminary findings and recommendations to officials of the space agency in Washington. Deputy Administrator Hugh Dryden and Deputy Associate Administrator Walter Lingle, along with Newell, Nicks, Cortright, Cunningham, and Jakobowski, listened intently to the presentation. The board, Hilburn reported, had uncovered numerous deficiencies in the design and testing of the "split" television system used in the Ranger Block III vehicles. This system was not entirely redundant, he observed, having been hastily redesigned after the flight of Ranger 5. These television systems also had recorded instances of inadvertent turn-ons at RCA during tests. The Ranger 6 television system, furthermore, had not been checked out at full power on the pad just prior to launch.

The test history of the Ranger spacecraft appeared hardly better. Torsional vibration of the spacecraft and television system at JPL had been conducted with the proof test models but not with the flight articles. JPL also preferred to conduct mission tests using numerous hard wires to monitor the performance of the spacecraft subsystems, another example, he continued, of procedures that in the board’s opinion jeopardized a thorough understanding of how the vehicle would perform in space. 13 These conditions, along with the lack of any telemetry data that pinpointed the failure, led the board to conclude that more than one cause was responsible for the loss of the Ranger 6 television system.

A quick technical fix, such as JPL’s proposal for electrically "locking out" the television system during ascent through the atmosphere, would therefore be insufficient to guarantee success. Ranger, the board said, would have a very low chance of achieving its objectives if NASA were to follow that course; much more stringent measures were necessary. The RCA television system, the Hilbum group concluded, had to be redesigned and retested, with a delay of twelve months or more before the next flight. Moreover, the board wished to broaden its investigation at JPL to include an evaluation of the JPL spacecraft, with further recommendations to follow.

Dryden, who had remained silent throughout most of the meeting, advised the board members that another prolonged delay for Ranger might well result in NASA’s canceling the project altogether. Under the proposed approach, Ranger’s lunar pictures would arrive too late to benefit Project Apollo measurably, and the added costs of redesign and retesting might better be applied to the upcoming Surveyor Project or Lunar Orbiter. He asked the board members to discuss the preliminary findings and recommendations further with Newell’s staff and the JPL project team on February 19 and 20, in a meeting to chart recovery plans for Project Ranger. 14


Unprepared for and startled by the asperity of Hilburn’s oral report, the members of Newell’s office were truly distressed. If the board did not alter its position, the cancellation of Ranger appeared a distinct possibility. In separate memos, Cunningham and Jakobowski condemned the board’s findings and recommendations in the strongest terms. The usually reticent Jakobowski refuted the findings point by point and openly urged positive lockout of the television system as the best approach for NASA to take. He judged the "ultra-conservative approach" adopted by the board to be ill-founded and untimely, and he found the manner in which the board presented its recommendations "to top management" to be most objectionable. Newell had not been given the opportunity to rebut Hilburn at the meeting. Now, he worried, management might "accept a pessimistic report without even asking for the views of the Program team." 15 Nicks endorsed Jakobowski’s memo, as did Cunningham. "Ranger," Cunningham added, "is in the unfortunate position of being not only in the public spotlight because of its mission and its failures, but also in the Agency and Congressional spotlight because of the continual publicity which started with the Kelley Board of Inquiry. I honestly believe that it is possible for a program to be reviewed to death, and this is very likely in the case of Ranger if the investigation is allowed to continue." 16

Newell was in no position to stop an investigation authorized by Webb, Dryden, and Seamans, but he shared many of the same reservations expressed by his subordinates. The project, he decided, must continue. In the two-day meeting on February 19 and 20, Hilburn, Nicks, Cunningham, Schurtneier, and their associates argued and discussed the various alternatives for proceeding with Ranger. After compromise on all sides, Cunningham reported, "a general approach was agreed upon":

1. The Ranger 7 television system would be modified, reworked, and retested at the RCA plant in Hightstown, New Jersey, while the spacecraft remained at Cape Kennedy.

2. A proof test model of the modified television system would be requalified, then returned to JPL for further tests.

3. Changes to the spacecraft would be limited to the wiring necessary to accommodate the modified television system. Both the flight spacecraft and television system would be retested at the Cape.

Although the exact changes and detailed plans remained to be completed, this course would permit the launch of Ranger 7 at the end of May. 17 Newell, meantime, urged Pickering to consider the recommendations of the Hilburn Board "objectively" in arriving at a detailed plan. Until Headquarters approved all of the retest and requalification procedures, he said, "the official flight schedule will remain under study." 18

Still, for all of Newell’s diplomatic intercession and the tentative compromise on Ranger 7, Hilburn pulled no punches when on March 17, 1964, he submitted the board’s final report to Webb. "In view of the evidence that two or more failures must have occurred within the spacecrafts TV subsystem,’ the report averred, "the Board broadened its investigation to include an evaluation of any general weakness in the Ranger design, testing philosophy, and procedures which might have contributed to, or enhanced the possibilities of, in-flight failure." The Board, the report continued, had found a good deal wrong: 19

1. The two video chains and their associated power and control systems were unnecessarily complex... Furthermore, the two TV systems were not entirely redundant; there were many boxes, plugs, junctions, cables, and control circuits which were common to the two chains and in which a single failure would lead to the disablement of both television systems...

2. Hazardous conditions resulted from certain practices employed in the design and construction of the spacecraft. These included the use of a male umbilical connector, a multiplicity of circuits through the umbilical, exposed terminals where a foreign particle could produce a short circuit, and the use of unvented and unsealed boxes.

3. Most of the Ranger testing was carried out in such a manner that potentially dangerous situations which could have enhanced accidental triggering of critical control circuits could not be vigorously assessed. Because of approximately 300 wire electrical connections between the operating circuitry of the Ranger spacecraft and its associated external test equipment, the ground test conditions are quite apart from the true space flight conditions, where only radio communications tie the spacecraft to its ground control systems.

4. The Ranger 6 spacecraft contained a directional antenna ... that was never system tested with the high-power TV transmitters.

5. Prelaunch systems verification was incomplete (e.g., the last operation of the complete TV subsystem on Ranger 6 was twelve days prior to launch). This resulted from the necessity for removing the TV payload from the bus to fuel the midcourse motor, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's reluctance to risk possible damage to the space vehicle after it was reassembled, with the [pyrotechnic] squibs in place under the shroud.

Project officials at JPL and Headquarters had conceded only portions of the second finding (one actually associated with the television subsystem and not, as claimed, with the spacecraft). The rest of the findings, which concerned JPL design and test philosophies, they had rejected. In substance and wording, those findings strongly implied an oversight at NASA, malfeasance at JPL, or both. The JPL staff had dissented with particular sharpness from the board's recommendations for corrective action to modify and retest Ranger 7.

Although JPL had agreed to change the television system and discuss other modifications, it had steadfastly refused, for Ranger 7 to accept three important changes in testing practices demanded by the Hilburn Board, viz.,

1. Eliminate all ground wire connections during vibration testing, and use "absolute minimum wires" during mission testing.

2. Eliminate "microinspection" of certain components after environmental tests (JPL had agreed to do so only for Ranger 7).

3. Use minimum wires during prelaunch checkout.

Laboratory officials had insisted that, with the limited engineering telemetry available on Ranger, wire connections to the spacecraft to sample subsystem performance should be maintained in tests. In view of this disagreement, the board, which had no authority to impose its will on Schurmeier’s JPL project office, urged NASA management to monitor closely all the Ranger 7 tests, target the launch of Ranger 7 for the end of June "but hold the official launch date ‘under study’ pending evaluation of the validity and results of the Ranger 7 tests in Pasadena," and detain Ranger 7 at JPL instead of the Cape until NASA "concurs that the spacecraft is flightworthy." 20

James Webb received the final report but took no immediate action. The disquisition posed disrupting procedural problems. On the one hand the news media and the Congress expected word of the investigation’s results and of NASA’s plans for Ranger. On the other hand public release of the report was liable to stir a massive wave of contention within the space agency. On March 26 Robert Seamans sent copies of the Hilburn final report to Pickering, DuBridge, and the inventor, businessman, and chairman of the Caltech Board of Trustees, Arnold O. Beckman. The classified report, Seamans explained in his covering letter, was an "internal document not for public distribution or discussion with the press..." Access was being limited to the three men while "we ... consider very carefully what our responsibility is with respect to reporting to the Congressional Committees ... and to the press." 21 Under the terms of transmittal, the document could not be shown to other JPL officials.

In Washington on March 31, Webb, also disturbed by the continuing Caltech-JPL resistance to NASA direction, sent identical letters to Clinton P. Anderson, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, and George P. Miller, Chairman of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics. Copies of the letter were telegraphed to Pickering and Beckman. The four-page, single-spaced missive explained the work of the Hilburn Board and reported on "the present assumptions regarding the Ranger 6 failure and our current plans for future flights." Although excluding the board’s recommendations, all five of the disputed findings were reproduced virtually word for word. They indicated "a number of deficiencies in design, in construction, and in the testing of this [Ranger 61 spacecraft..." at JPL. The Hilburn report itself, Webb asserted, was classified Confidential. It had been prepared for NASA use and represented only a portion of the available material. "Consequently, this report will not be released, especially since it does not represent NASA’s complete judgment and final implementing plans." 22

But however the letters were intended, members of Newell’s office worried about Congressional demands for an investigation of Ranger based on the debatable charges. In Pasadena, the letters sharply increased exasperation over the seeming byzantine maneuvers of NASA Headquarters in its dealing with Caltech-JPL.


Copies of Webb’s letters arrived in the Office of Space Science and Applications the same day that they were posted to Capitol Hill. No one had been prepared for them; indeed, it seemed inconceivable that letters containing the Hilburn Board charges could have been sent forward without prior consultation, or the chance to append documents of rebuttal. 23 It appeared as if Webb’s office had made a grievous administrative error or, worse, the Administrator had lost all confidence in those at NASA responsible for Project Ranger. Morale plummeted.

On Monday, April 6, Newell consulted with Cortright, Nicks, and Cunningham. At Newell's request, Nicks prepared for his signature a memorandum to Seamans. It expressed strong reservations over sending the disputed charges to Congress; charges in these letters, the memo averred, often made no technical sense and thus would be "subject to misinterpretation." The action, moreover, had had a serious "impact on the morale in the Office of Space Science and Applications and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory". 24 A lengthy attachment set forth Office objections to the technical aspects of the board's findings conveyed to Congress:

1. The two RCA video chains might have been complex, but the Hilburn report implied that any system not entirely redundant was improperly designed. "Even if the two TV channels had been completely redundant, the spacecraft itself would have represented a non-redundant series of systems of far greater complexity... A single failure in the attitude control system, for example, could result in complete loss of television data, as could the failure of a booster engine."

2. The report’s description of practices employed in the design and construction of the spacecraft conveyed "no other conclusion than that the spacecraft was assembled with complete disregard for normal quality control practices..." For example, "the method and degree of venting unpressurized [electronic] boxes will always be a matter of engineering judgment. Insofar as the Ranger flights are concerned, we have never encountered a problem attributed to venting."

3. JPL’s use of wire electrical connections during spacecraft testing was also a matter of judgment Ranger communicated over great distances on a wideband radio-frequency link which limited the telemetry bit rate. therefore, "because of this lack of capability to adequately monitor ... the spacecraft with the RF link, cables are required during environmental tests." Care nonetheless had been taken to check for sneak circuits in the ground equipment which might have caused or obscured failures during testing.

4. The Ranger 6 directional antenna was "not normally used during ‘system tests;’ " however, it was "a simple, fixed geometry, 1.2-meter (4 foot) dish which is always functionally tested after installation to ensure that it is transmitting properly, and video is transmitted by means of this antenna with the spacecraft in launch configuration on the launch vehicle." It was not radiated at full power within the shroud atop the Agena for fear of damage to the spacecraft and launch vehicle.

5. Although it was true that JPL never exercised the television transmitters at a full 60 watts power on the launch pad, "their reasons seem very sound. Should the midcourse motor squibs fire, igniting the midcourse motor, it would cause complete destruction of the spacecraft, and if this occurred on the launch pad, probably also the Atlas-Agena... On the other hand, the low-power test which was performed functionally checked out the complete TV system, except for the application of high voltage ... which had been checked out a few days earlier" in the hangar at Cape Kennedy. 25

The Hilburn report, to be sure, did contain a number of charges based upon inconclusive evidence and erroneous technical assumptions. No one could be sure, for example, that "two or more failures must have occurred" aboard Ranger 6. And, because of the limited engineering data available from Ranger’s analog telemetry, the hard wire electrical connections that JPL used between the spacecraft and its external ground test equipment really made technical sense. The board members knew along with everyone else that something catastrophic had gone wrong, though whether it involved the spacecraft as well as the television subsystem and the umbilical connector on the Agena nose fairing remained a question mark. But it was also true that more spacecraft testing, including full-power television tests without wire connections to the test consoles, could have been accomplished as a doublecheck, and NASA and JPL officials had to consider it.

A draft of Nicks’ rebuttal to the Hilburn charges was shown to Robert Seamans. Since Congress had already received the findings, he considered formal criticism sensitive at this point. "We were authorized to put it in the files," Cortright later recalled, "but not to send it." 26 Seamans, in turn, took up the issue with Webb. Leaders of the Office of Space Science and Applications, Webb learned, would likely take issue with various aspects of the Ranger 6 findings in any Congressional investigation.

And so, it seemed, they would. The Hilburn report, Nicks informed Newell bitterly, not only contained inaccuracies, but, since it contained no military secrets, it had also been classified in a highly irregular fashion. "Allowing only limited distribution, such as preventing the Director of JPL from showing the report to his staff, indicates clearly that NASA did not establish the review board for the purpose of feedback to project personnel." If the only purpose of the investigation had been to establish "a basis for a critical letter to Congress," Nicks concluded, "we in the Program Office were naively misled initially into supporting it as a constructive endeavor." 27 At JPL, where the report itself had been viewed as a final canard from Hilbum, the NASA investigation, the report and the letters to Congress now appeared connected in a devious attempt to bludgeon the Laboratory’s management. 28 Exasperation gave way to outrage. Pickering instructed JPL officials to refuse interviews with newsmen and issue no public statements.

Publicly, Project Ranger was increasingly treated as a manifestation of the differences between NASA and Caltech-JPL. Confusing reports and rumors multiplied, especially in Southern California. "If Ranger 7 fails," the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner proclaimed, "management of the government owned laboratory may be taken out of the hands of the California Institute of Technology ... Director William H. Pickering may be removed from the post he has held 10 years." 29 But if NASA wished to separate JPL from Caltech, the Los Angeles Times added editorially, "it could do this without first resorting to a campaign of defamation, which not only damages JPL but reflects unfavorably on one of the country’s very great schools of science and technology.¼ " 30

Responding to queries at a news conference a few days later, Webb said that his letter to Congress had at least been an administrative mistake. He had been traveling when he completed and sent the letter back to Headquarters. Presuming that Newell’s office already had seen and approved the draft, he signed it upon his return. For that he was sorry. Nonetheless, Webb concluded for the newsmen, even though some at NASA and JPL "may ... see problems created by such a letter, I take it pretty seriously that we have responsibility for giving [Congress] a report, and that is what I did." 31 But the Administrator’s explanation and apology came too late to avoid serious problems on Capitol Hill, for on April 9, 1964, Congressman George P. Miller, chairman of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics, had announced that the Subcommittee on NASA Oversight would investigate charges that the Ranger failures were "due to faulty design and inadequate testing by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory." 32


A Congressional investigation of Project Ranger gave NASA leaders good cause for apprehension. Although they considered California’s Democratic Congressman George Miller to be generally a friend of NASA and JPL, the Congressman he designated to head the inquiry was Joseph E. Karth. From Minnesota, Karth had few space interests to nourish or protect, and, despite his generous comments after the flight of Ranger 6, he had been more often a strong critic both of Caltech-JPL performance on Ranger and of the manner in which NASA managed its solitary contract field center. 33 Webb immediately warned Karth of the "unfortunate" timing of the Ranger hearings, and that the inquiry might dangerously affect morale and the program. Webb particularly cautioned the Congressman against taking the Hilburn report as NASA’s final word on the difficulties with Ranger. It was, he emphasized, "only one working document." 34

But the witnesses - for NASA: Webb, Seamans, Newell, Nicks, Cunningham, and Cortright; for JPL: Pickering, Parks, and Schurmeier - quickly learned that the Minnesota Democrat took the report at least as a significant preliminary word. After the critical Ranger letter, Karth declared when he opened the four days of hearings on April 27, "it was hardly reasonable to expect that ... a Congressional investigation was not in the best interests of the country and Congress." The Subcommittee on NASA Oversight intended to review any possible Ranger "technical deficiencies," but its "primary interest" in this hearing would be devoted to "problems of management" at NASA and JPL. 35

The technical issues focused on whether the Ranger equipment had been adequately tested before flight. Some critics, Karth contended, alluding to the NASA investigation of Ranger in 1962, charged that instead of thorough testing before launch, JPL relied on a general philosophy of "‘shoot and hope it works.’" That had never been the NASA or JPL approach, the Ranger witnesses countered. If the Congressman had received the contrary impression, from whatever the source, it was because of confusion about what constituted a proper test. True, Ranger’s high-gain antenna, for example, though tested separately, had not been system tested with the high-power TV transmitters after installation on the spacecraft. No such test was needed and, in any case, none could be reliably conducted before launch in the hangar at Cape Kennedy. Even though the space agency and JPL witnesses repeatedly insisted that the Rangers had been adequately tested, however, they also conceded that the remaining Ranger spacecraft would be subjected to additional tests, including a number of those recommended in the Hilburn report. Cortright forthrightly summarized the situation:

I believe that the project people both at JPL and in NASA Headquarters felt that the testing program¼ was quite adequate for this job. The reason we are looking at it with a second view now, and instituting even additional tests, is that we don't know what happened to Ranger 6, and we are trying to do everything we can think of which might improve the system. 36

The focus of the managerial issue was the responsiveness - or what Karth suspected as the lack of responsiveness - of JPL to the direction of NASA. Pickering flatly declared that, while JPL felt free to dispute NASA technical and organizational judgments, the Laboratory always accepted ultimate decisions and directions from Headquarters. The problem was to remain responsive to Washington while maintaining the spirit of free inquiry characteristic of a university laboratory. In fact, the new NASA - Caltech contract, Pickering explained, permitted NASA increased control over JPL. 37 "It would be quite unwise," Webb added in support of Pickering's observation, for subcommittee members "to start out on an effort to convert this into a civil service laboratory..." NASA and Congress must never "forget that a very, very large proportion of [JPL’s] work is entirely satisfactorily handled-in fact, is outstandingly handled - and that there are men there who have done and are doing work more technical more complex, more difficult than is being done in almost any other place by the human race." 38 The latest contract with Caltech, he assured the legislators, afforded the space agency all the controls and authority it needed.

Despite Webb’s praise of JPL and announced confidence for the future, Karth was dissatisfied. "NASA is the contracting agency of the Government; [it] should be, in fact, the boss of the program. NASA provides the money, and therefore should have more to say about how this work is to be done, and by whom it should be done..." And considering Ranger’s disappointing flight results, Karth supposed that at least NASA should have installed a strong technical team in Pasadena, "to oversee or supervise, not just management practices at JPL, but technical approaches as well." Webb had to say that closer control from NASA might have produced better results, but he doubted it. Indeed, under such conditions JPL might have lost some of its best people. As to Karth’s proposal for a strong technical team at JPL, it was NASA policy, Webb asserted, to avoid that kind of exceptional "intervention and monitoring" of its contractors. 39

All the same, the Karth subcommittee’s report came down hard on the management of Project Ranger by JPL and the Office of Space Science and Applications. Relying on the portions of the Hilburn report made public, the previous NASA investigation in 1962, and on the testimony, the subcommittee charged that JPL had failed to establish rigid and uniform testing and fabrication standards for the Ranger spacecraft. The Laboratory had also poorly organized the project at the outset, then demonstrated an "embarrassing unwillingness" to accept NASA direction and make necessary changes. NASA’s supervision of the work was judged inadequate because of a tendency at Headquarters to regard the Laboratory as a field center instead of a contractor. But in specific practical terms the Karth report scarcely threatened the Caltech - JPL relationship. It advised the space agency to take four steps: provide "appropriate" supervision of JPL either as a contractor or field center; install a general manager at JPL as a deputy director responsible for flight projects such as Mariner and Ranger; reform the institutional relationship so as to achieve responsiveness to NASA direction; and consider executing a one-year contract with Caltech instead of a longer-term agreement. 40

Save for settling the precise period of the contract extension, 41 so far as NASA and JPL were concerned all the other arrangements were going into effect, including the recommendation for a general manager, one of NASA’s longstanding - and long resisted - demands of JPL. On June 29 Pickering announced that, effective August 1, retired Air Force Major General Alvin R. Luedecke, General Manager of the Atomic Energy Commission, would replace Brian Sparks as Deputy Director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The appointment, approved by NASA and Caltech, gave Luedecke general manager responsibility for the day-to-day technical and administrative activities of the Laboratory. 42

The Ranger inquiry, William Coughlin railed in Missiles and Rockets, approached a whitewash. "One cannot lay the blame for this at the door of the able Chairman... It seemed that his hands were tied by what appeared to be almost a conspiracy to soothe the wounded feelings of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory." 43 Science heaved a public sigh of relief. In the face of NASA’s own original charges, the journal mused, Webb’s unexpected support of JPL in the hearings had led many "to conclude that,¼ like the grand old Duke of York in the nursery rhyme, [he] had marched his soldiers up the hill, then marched them down again." 44 Of course, the original NASA charges had only been the Hilburn report, which the agency, including its director, had not endorsed. Considering that, Webb’s support of JPL should have surprised no one. Webb himself was certainly pleased with the outcome. He told Representative George Miller that Karth had recognized "we are dealing with an extremely delicate situation, much like walking down Fifth Avenue in your BVD’s." He for one was also gratified that Karth had resisted the pressure to "look for scapegoats." 45

To Webb’s mind, there were no scapegoats. There was a lunar flight project at JPL still to be completed successfully. At this stage in the nation’s evolving space program, furthermore, he had little choice but to back the Caltech-operated laboratory. He also had no reason not to, considering the JPL concessions: greater control from NASA, a new general manager, acceptance of more spacecraft testing, and greater attention to the RCA television system. Now it remained to be seen how the Laboratory and NASA would fare with Ranger 7.

Chapter 15  link to the previous page        link to the next page  Chapter 17

Chapter Sixteen - 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. The views and lifespan of this contemporary aerospace journal coincided neatly with the most competitive "cold war" period in astronautics. For Coughlin's views, see "The Rise and Fall, " Missiles and Rockets, May 2 5, 1964, p. 70.

2. William J. Coughlin, "A $150-million Failure," Missiles and Rockets, February 10, 1964, p. 50. Coughlin's source for the performance rating was apparently drawn from NASA Associate Administrator Robert Seamans, who had observed in testimony before Congress on February 4 that " the last Ranger flight was extremely successful from the standpoint of the guidance technology, but as we score this, it was a 100-percent failure. So we are," he assured the legislators, "scoring hard. "United States Congress, House, Committee on Science and Astronautics, 1965 NASA Authorization, Hearings before the Committee, 88th Congress, 2nd Session, on H.R. 964 1, 1964, No. 1, Part 1, p. 62.

3. Cf, remarks of Apollo Spacecraft Program Director Joseph F. Shea quoted from a speech in Milwaukee on February 3, 1964, in Harry S. Pease, "Sending Men to Moon in 196 8 Forecast, " Milwaukee Journal, February 4, 1964; and of John W. Eggleston, an Apollo space environmental specialist, in "Extra Apollo Moonshot Proposed," Associated Press Article, Brooks Air Force Base, Texas, February 6, 1964, cited in JPL News Clips, prepared by the Office of Public Information, February 7, 1964, p. 5. Other NASA officials moved swiftly to deny the veracity of these reports, TWX from Julian Scheer to William Pickering, February 6, 1964 (2-150), and a letter from Robert Gilruth to William Pickering, February 13, 1964 (2-1820); but the statements and subsequent refutations bespoke the low circumstances into which Ranger had fallen.

4. JPL Interoffice Memo 313-1398 from Walter Downhower to Donald Kindt, subject: "Committee of Section Chiefs Reviewing RA-6 Flight," February 12, 1964 (2-2078).

5. Karth quoted in "Legislators Back NASA on Ranger," Aviation Week and Space Technology, Vol. 80, February 10, 1964, p. 24; and letter from George Miller to William Pickering, February 5, 1964 (2-1813).

6. TWX from William Pickering to Homer Newell, February 11, 1964 (215 1 ); TWX from William Cunningham to Harris Schurmeier, February 17, 1964 (2-1826).

7. RA-6 Investigation Committee Final Report (Engineering Planning Document No. 205. Pasadena, California: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, February 14, 1964)(2-1303).

8. Ibid., p. v.

9. Condensed from ibid., pp. 1-2 and 1-3.

10. NASA Announcement No. 64-27 by Robert Seamans, subject: " Establishment of the Ranger VI Review Board," February 3, 1964 (2-1811).

11. NASA memorandum from Robert Seamans to Earl Hilburn, subject: "Clarification of Ranger VI Review Board Membership established February 3, 1964," n.d. (2-2468); and NASA memorandum from Robert Seamans to Earl Hilburn, subject: "Ranger VI Review Board," February 3, 1964 (2-2467).

12. NASA News Release No. 63-141, subject: "Three New Appointments to Headquarters Staff, " June 27, 1963 (2-2504).

13. See "Preparing for the Test Flights" in Chapter Four of this volume.

14. Meeting events as described in NASA memorandum from Walter Jakobowski to Homer Newell and Edgar Cortright, subject: "Comments on Ranger Failure Review Board Presentation on February 14, " n.d. (2-1823); and NASA memorandum from William Cunningham to Homer Newell and Edgar Cortright, subject: " Ranger VI Failure Report Presentation of February 14," February 18, 1964 (2-2469i); also TWX from Cunningham to Schurmeier, February 17, 1964 (2-1826).

15. NASA memo from Jakobowski to Newell and Cortright, n.d., pp. 1-2 (2- 1823).

16. NASA memo from Cunningham to Newell and Cortright, February 18, 1964, p. 2 (2-2469i).

17. William Cunningham, NASA, OSSA Review, February 24,1964, pp. 49-50 (2-1505).

18. TWX from Homer Newell to William Pickering, February 24, 1964 (2-1828).

19. Final Report of the Ranger 6 Review Board (Washington: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, March 17, 1964), pp. 6-8 (2-2472).

20. Ibid., p. 12.

21. Letter from Robert Seamans to William Pickering, March 26, 1964 (2- 2346).

22. Letter from James Webb to George Miller and Clinton Anderson, March 31, 1964, as reprinted 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. 12-15.

23. Interview of Oran Nicks by Cargill Hall, August 26, 1968, p. 7 (2-761).

24. Draft of a NASA memorandum from Oran Nicks to Robert Seamans, subject: "Comments on Mr. Webb's Letter to Congress Regarding the Ranger Program," p. 1 (2-1844).

25. Condensed from ibid., pp. 2-9 of Attachment A; cf, Hilburn Board findings, "A Public Accounting," in this chapter, and JPL rationale, "The Aftermath, " in Chapter Six of this volume.

26. Interview of Edgar Cortright by Cargill Hall and Eugene Emme, March 4, 1968, p. 12 (2-762).

27. NASA memorandum from Oran Nicks to Homer Newell and Edgar Cortright, subject: "Ranger 6 Review Board, "April 9, 1964, pp. 1-2 (2395).

28. As Pickering later confided to Newell, "It would appear that the Board was all too eager to rationalize a reason for extending its efforts into areas that otherwise could not be related to the specific Ranger 6 failure, and thus impose its opinions and prejudices upon the overall conduct of the Project." Letter from William Pickering to Homer Newell, May 22, 1964, p. 3 (22469c).

29. JPL's Last Chance to Hit the Moon," Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, April 4, 1964.

30. "NASA Renews the Attack on JPL, " editorial in Los Angeles Times, April 8, 1964, Part II, p. 4.

31. NASA News Release, text of the conference by James E. Webb, April 15, 1964, p. 20 (2-1972).

32. Miller quoted in Bill Sumner, "House Will Probe JPL Controversy," Star News [Pasadena], April 9, 1964, p. 1; also Robert Toth, "House Unit to Probe NASA, Jet Lab Dispute," Los Angeles Times, April 10, 1964, Part 1, P.1.

33. See, for example, the Karth-Newell colloquy in United States Congress, House, Committee on Science and Astronautics, 1965 NASA Authorization, Hearings before the Subcommittee on Space Sciences and Applications, 88th Congress, 2nd Session,. on H.R. 9641, 1964, No. 1, Part 3, pp. 1965-1966; and United States Congress, Senate, Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, NASA Authorization for Fiscal Year 1965, Hearings before the Committee, 88th Congress, 2nd Session, on S. 2446, 1964, Part 2: Program Detail," p. 591. After the Ranger 6 failure, Newell's longtime deputy Cortright asserted, "there was Congressional pressure to get rid of JPL, to reorganize JPL, take JPL over, all the things that we were considering [earlier] were suggested by Congress, some of it informally. Congressman Karth made suggestions like this to us privately." Interview of Cortright, by Hall and Emme, March 4, 1968, p. 16 (2-762). See Karth background, "Making a Case for More Rangers" and "Lunar Orbiter and Congress Intervene " in Chapter Thirteen of this volume.

34. Letter from James Webb to Joseph Karth, April 23, 1964, pp. 1-2 (2-2479).

35. Investigation of Project Ranger, pp. 1, 3.

36. Ibid., p. 126.

37. Ibid., pp. 159-161.

38. Ibid., p. 214.

39. Ibid., pp. 215-226.

40. United States Congress, House, Committee on Science and Astronautics, Project Ranger, Report of the Subcommittee on NASA Oversight, 88th Congress, 2nd Session, 1964, pp. 20-31.

41. Eventually set to extend three years, from January 1, 1964, through December 31, 1966. The previous extension had been for two years: January 1, 1962, through December 31, 1963.

42. JPL Press Release 2 94, June 2 9, 1964; " JPL Deputy Named, " Missiles and Rockets, Vol. 15, July 6, 1964, p. 8; JPL Announcement 8-64, August 11, 1964.

43. William J. Coughlin, " Praise for Caesar, " editorial in Missiles and Rockets, May 11, 1964, p. 46.

44. "Ranger: Oversight Subcommittee Asks Why NASA Doesn't Prevail on JPL to ‘Rigidize’ Projectwise," Science, Vol. 144, May 15, 1964, p. 824.

45. Letter from James Webb to George Miller, May 4, 1964 (2-2349).

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