LUNAR IMPACT: A History of Project Ranger

Part I. The Original Ranger


By mid 1961, project personnel were preparing for the launch of Rangers 1 and 2. These missions were to demonstrate the engineering performance of the spacecraft and its flight support operations, provide operating experience with the Atlas-Agena B launch vehicle, and measure, by means of sky science instruments, fields and particles along the selected trajectories. 1 Each spacecraft would be launched into a low earth orbit from Cape Canaveral. Then, upon second bum of the Agena stage, each would be injected into a highly elliptical orbit with an apogee (or high point) of approximately one million kilometers (620,000 miles) and a perigee (low point) of a few hundred kilometers. Of course, with no rocket engine aboard, no midcourse maneuver could be made. But, swinging far out into space beyond the orbit of the moon, with an operating life expectancy of five months, the flights of Rangers I and 2 promised a great deal: for engineers, a first opportunity to command and exercise this new breed of spacecraft in deep space; for sky scientists, new knowledge of the space environment from measurements conducted over a prolonged period (Figure 37). Indeed, by 1961, just enough scientific data on the magnetosphere and outer space phenomena had been returned by NASA's early Pioneer space probes and Explorer satellites to hint at the fascinating electromagnetic interactions occurring between the earth and the sun.


Fig. 37. Spam Trajectory Selected for Rangers 1 and 2


The Atlas booster, which would deliver the spacecraft into near space, was America's first intercontinental ballistic missile. Developed in San Diego for the Air Force in the mid-1950s by General Dynamics-Astronautics, it measured 18 meters (60 feet) in length, and towered five stories high. Fueled with liquid oxygen and kerosene, it weighed 117,000 kilograms (130 tons). The rocket engines, supplied by Rocketdyne Division of North American Aviation, produced 163,080 kilograms (360,000 pounds) of thrust at sea level-equivalent to the combined power of six Boeing 707 jet liners. To increase the weight carried into space, the Atlas designers had radically lightened the stainless steel skin and structural members. The structure was so light, in fact, that it could not support its own weight. To provide the needed rigidity, the vehicle was pressurized internally, like a balloon. The engineers also determined to ignite all three main engines at launch since they could not be certain whether liquid propellant rocket engines could be ignited at very high altitudes and at very low pressures (see Figure 5).

The Agena booster satellite, stacked atop the Atlas, had been designed by the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation's Missiles and Space Division. The model B to be used in Project Ranger employed propellant tanks of increased capacity over an earlier model, and a Bell Aerosystems rocket engine that could be ignited in space, shut down, then reignited to burn a second time (Figure 38). This 7248-kilogram (16,000-pound) thrust engine consumed two noxious liquid chemicals known as unsymmetrical dimethyl hydrazine and inhibited red fuming nitric acid. The Agena B would hurl Ranger into its ultimate deep space trajectory. 2


Fig. 38. Agena B Satellite Configuration

(For Project Ranger, the Agena Solar Panels were removed and a Spacecraft Adapter Plate 

was substituted for a portion of the Forward Equipment Rack.)

There were two methods by which Ranger could be sent into its deep space path: the direct ascent and the parking orbit. In the first of these, the spacecraft would be launched upward through the earth's atmosphere, directly into orbit toward its celestial target. In the parking orbit trajectory, the upper stage of the launch vehicle and the spacecraft would first be placed into an earth satellite orbit; then an additional rocket thrust would inject it onto its deep space orbit. In both approaches the planner could alter the launch azimuth (direction) of the ascent from Cape Canaveral to accommodate some of the changes in position of the earth and a celestial target. But the parking orbit trajectory offered still further advantages for deep space missions, and the "dual-burn" feature of the Agena made a parking orbit feasible.

Dual burn meant that trajectory planners could alter the point of launch above the moving earth and could, therefore, aim at a wider variety of points on the lunar target. Thus, by varying the launch azimuth at liftoff and the coasting time of the Agena in an earth parking orbit, it would be possible to compensate continuously for celestial motions, and expand the time allowable for the launch interval (called the "launch window"). This increased the chance of getting a launch away despite any countdown problems that might occur in the first operation of these large and complex vehicles.* To simplify the operations of the first two Ranger test missions, and to ensure that the Agena second bum would take place within view of the downrange tracking station on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic, predetermined values were established for the launch azimuth and the dual bum and parking orbit. For the lunar flights, however, both the variable launch azimuth and parking orbit coast times would be employed, continuing Ranger's progression from the simple to the complex in design and operation.

* Were a launch window missed because of delays, the flights had to be postponed for an entire lunar month, until the target point and lighting conditions (necessary for photography and solar power) presented themselves again in the same geometry.

At liftoff, under auto pilot and programmer control on the desired launch azimuth, the Atlas would begin a gentle arc, tilting toward the horizontal above the earth. With data of the vehicle's performance fed into a large digital computer at Cape Canaveral after the two outboard engines had shut down and separated, steering commands for the sustainer phase of operation could be generated and transmitted over the earth-to-Atlas radio link. Then, upon shutdown of the Atlas sustainer engine, the Cape computer would predict the performance required of the Agena booster. Two commands (parking orbit coast time and second-bum velocity-to-be-gained) would be radioed to and stored in the Agena. Another command would shut down the two small vernier engines on the Atlas when the proper velocity and heading were attained.

Upon separating from the Atlas, the Agena's aerodynamic nose fairing that covered and protected Ranger from the flow of the wind would eject automatically. The Agena B engine would then bum once to establish the parking orbit around the earth. After the proper coasting period, the engine was to be reignited, injecting the vehicle onto the final transfer trajectory. All of these latter events would take place under the command of the Agena's guidance and control unit (composed of gyroscopes, accelerometers, and infrared horizon scanners), without further radio control from the ground. With the final trajectory established, the Ranger spacecraft would be mechanically separated from the Agena by a set of springs; a few moments later, several thrusters aboard the Agena were to be fired, carrying the booster safely away from Ranger and the moon, onto an altogether different trajectory (Figure 39).


Fig. 39 Ranger Ascent Sequence

Apart from the proper execution of the planned ascent, the success of the Ranger missions would also depend upon the spacecraft performing its appropriate routine in space, upon the proper operation of the deep space stations and the JPL flight control center, and upon how well Ranger's engineers and scientists had performed their preflight tasks.


As expected, systems tests conducted with the Ranger Block I proof test model at JPL revealed a number of subsystem discrepancies and electrical interferences that had to be corrected on the flight hardware. However, by mid 1961 the first spacecraft had passed through assembly and the qualification tests on time and without serious incident. In May, Oran Nicks examined Ranger 1 and its complete test history. Although short on redundant features, the design appeared sound. Nicks authorized shipment to Cape Canaveral.

The allowable launch period for Ranger 1 extended from July 26 through August 2, 1961; its daily launch window tended from 4:53 to 5:37 am EST. For the first time all of the hardware for a Ranger mission was brought together, and all entered the last round of inspections and Right acceptance tests. Once the countdown began, the project members would also for the first time participate in an actual launch operation. In the weeks immediately preceding launch, Burke and Schurmeier, together with Air Force Major Jack Albert, Marshall's Agena chief Hans Hueter, and other participants, spent an increasing amount of time at Cape Canaveral ironing out bureaucratic differences and seeing to final details.

The participants reconciled differences of opinion, and the Ranger vehicles and flight operations complexes finished their test cycle in June and July. Moved to Launch Complex 12 at the Cape in late June, Agena B 6001 was stacked atop the Atlas 111D. Ranger 1, attached to an adapter plate and sealed inside the nose fairing, was then connected to the forward end of the Agena, and engineers began combined systems tests of the assembled vehicle. The ensemble satisfactorily passed what was termed the Joint Flight Acceptance Composite Test on July 13, and was judged ready for launch. The Deep Space Network, meantime, underwent net integration tests involving the deep space tracking stations, the JPL control center, the JPL command center in Hangar AE, and the tracking stations downrange from Cape Canaveral. Although encountering some problems, especially with communications to South Africa, 3 these tests were also deemed successful. The control center received the tracking, engineering, and scientific telemetry data from all of the stations in the correct format and proper sequence. 4

To permit tracking Ranger in its initial parking orbit above the earth, a small, mobile tracking antenna had been moved to the Johannesburg station. Though it could not track radio signals at great distances, this 3-meter (10-foot) dish antenna possessed a beam width of 10 degrees-ten times as wide as the large, permanent antennas-and it could swing at a rate of 10 degrees per second-ten times as fast as the big dishes could be moved. A small group led by Earl Martin of JPL readied the mobile antenna and prepared to acquire and track the rapidly moving Ranger above South Africa, as the Agena reignited its engine to inject the spacecraft onto its deep space trajectory. Information provided by the mobile tracking antenna and the tracking stations downrange from the Cape would enable the big dishes in the Deep Space Network to locate and follow Ranger 1 as it moved out and away from the earth on its space trajectory (Figure 40). 5


Fig. 40. Three-Meter Antenna at Johannesburg

On July 26, 1961, everything was ready; at least everything that had been thought of and tested by myriad engineers and scientists in a dozen organizations around the world.


The first countdown for the launch of Ranger 1 began on the evening of July 28, three days late. Trajectory information required by the Range Safety Officer was delayed, at a cost of one day; a guidance system malfunction in the Atlas booster consumed another; and the third was lost when engineers found that the guidance program to be fed into the Cape computer contained an error. The countdown proceeded normally into the early morning hours of July 29. Power interruptions occurred eighty-three minutes before launch, requiring momentary holds to permit all stations to check and recover. Then, at 5:0.2 am EST, twenty-eight minutes before launch, Cape Canaveral, aglow with lights and the hum of launch activity, was plunged into darkness. Commercial electrical power had failed, much to the increased consternation of launch officials when they learned why: inadequate allowance had been made for changes in cable sag caused by variations in temperature on the new power poles recently installed at the Cape. The launch was delayed yet another day.

The second countdown was canceled on July 30 when engineers discovered a leak in Ranger's attitude control gas system. After the faulty seal had been repaired and the spacecraft returned to Launch Complex 12, the third countdown commenced on July 31, only to be terminated once again when a valve malfunctioned in the liquid-oxygen tank on the Atlas booster.

Early in the fourth countdown on August 1, ground controllers turned on a spacecraft command applying high voltage to the scientific experiments for calibration purposes. Immediately all stations reported a major spacecraft failure. An electrical malfunction had triggered multiple commands from the central clock timer, and Ranger 1 "turned on" as it had been programmed to do in orbit. The explosive squibs fired, solar panels extended inside the shroud, and all the experiments commenced to operate.

Project engineers disengaged Ranger 1 from the Agena and hastily returned it to Hangar AE. Meantime the launch was rescheduled for August 22, the next available opportunity. Subsequent tests and investigations determined the activating mechanism to have been a voltage discharge to the spacecraft frame; although engineers suspected one or two of the scientific instruments, they could not determine the precise source of the discharge with certainty. In the days that followed they replaced and requalified the damaged parts, and modified the circuitry to prevent a recurrence of this kind of failure. 6

If the frustrating delay in the launch of Ranger 1 embarrassed NASA and JPL project officials, it also vexed Burke for quite another reason. As he viewed the matter, the ultimate loss of one month was the direct result of an unorthodox power discharge among the sky science experiments-cargo that was incidental to and conflicted with the primary engineering test objectives. Several of the experimenters, moreover, had already complained to him and to JPL Space Sciences Division Chief Al Hibbs about another kind of conflict between the instruments themselves. J. P. Heppner, the experimenter for the rubidium vapor magnetometer, announced that he found the friction experiment generated a magnetic field in excess of the background field for which his magnetometer had been designed. 7 Since the friction device was actually an engineering experiment, he argued that space science be served by removing it from the spacecraft. For the sake of future bearing and gear designs in space machines, J. B. Rittenhouse and his co-experimenters likewise insisted that the function experiment be retained. More certain than ever that the cargo should not be allowed to further jeopardize or delay the test flight, Burke told Hibbs and the experimenters concerned that, at this crucial point, no changes could be made in the science or engineering content of the Ranger Block I vehicles. Under existing schedules, each experimenter had to obtain the best data he could from his own instrument. 8

In the evening of August 22, 1961, the fifth countdown for the launch of Ranger 1 commenced on schedule at Cape Canaveral. The weather, although clear, was still warm and humid. At 6:04 am EDT, amid incandescent flame and the roar of the Atlas engines, Ranger 1 lifted from Launch Complex 12 and rose into the dawn sky, leaving in its wake a luminous, spectacular trail visible over the length of the Florida peninsula (Figure 41 ).


Fig. 41. Launch of Ranger 1

Like other launch officials anxiously awaiting the first return of data from the downrange tracking stations, Burke, now the formal mission director, moved to the JPL command post in Hangar AE. As the minutes passed, early returns were spotty and disconnected. Both a Department of Defense tracking ship in San Juan Harbor and the station on Ascension Island, he learned, had fought for control of the launch vehicle's radio beacon, with the result that data from the tracking ship were not immediately available. Nevertheless, what little information did arrive seemed encouraging. Both the Atlas and Agena appeared to have performed normally, and an earth parking orbit had been achieved. First returns from the Mobile Tracking Station in South Africa, however, were unclear. The spacecraft had appeared over the horizon five minutes later than anticipated. As Ranger 1 streaked eastward across the Indian Ocean, data from the mobile station suggested that the Agena B had not ignited a second time.

Ninety minutes after launch, Burke had solid-and bad- tracking news from one of the big dish antennas at Walter Larkin's Goldstone tracking facility in California. The Agena second burn definitely had gone improperly. With a perigee of 168 kilometers (105 miles) and an apogee of 501 kilometers (3 13 miles) altitude, Ranger 1 was stranded in a near-earth parking orbit-a flight profile for which neither it nor the deep space tracking net was designed. Disappointed at this outcome, Burke remained temporarily at the Cape, and conferred with Marshall Johnson by phone at JPL to see what could be done to achieve at least some of the mission's engineering objectives.

With Ranger 1 in a near-earth orbit, the deep space stations around the globe attempted a program of low-altitude satellite tracking. But the high angular velocity and the poor "look" angles near the horizon on many of the orbital passes severely taxed the capabilities of the large antennas (Figure 42). The polar mounted antennas at the Woomera station in Australia and the Johannesburg station in South Africa were closed down for a portion of the flight. In the days that followed, the small dish of the mobile tracking antenna in Johannesburg, and one of the large dish antennas at Goldstone which used an azimuth -elevation mounting, performed the lion's share of the tracking. 9


Fig. 42. Deep Space Tracking Coverage as a Function of Spacecraft Altitude

In space, meantime, Ranger 1 struggled to meet the unusual requirements imposed upon it by force of circumstance. Telemetry data arriving at the JPL control center disclosed that the spacecraft had separated properly from the Agena, had deployed its solar panels and high-gain antenna, and that the attitude control system had stabilized the machine in three axes. With its "top hat" low-gain antenna pointed at the sun, the solar panels were generating power, and Ranger 1 could receive and act on commands sent to it by the Goldstone transmitter.

But, designed for deep space flight, Ranger 1 could not meet the sustained demands of a near-earth satellite orbit. As it passed into the shade of the earth every ninety minutes, the spacecraft lost solar power and orientation, and had to realign and stabilize itself anew when it reemerged again into the sunlight. This process used the nitrogen gas of the attitude control system at a prodigious rate. On August 24, one day after the launch from Cape Canaveral, the gas supply was exhausted and Ranger 1 began to tumble in orbit. With its solar panels no longer aligned with the sun, the machine was left with nothing but its battery as a source of power. For the next three days telemetry continued to be received from a number of the scientific experiments and on the performance of the spacecraft subsystems. Then, on August 27, the main battery went dead. The telemetry output and all spacecraft functions ceased. Blind and inarticulate, Ranger 1 reentered the denser layers of the atmosphere on August 30 and was consumed in a ball of fire over the Gulf of Mexico. 10

As disappointing as this first flight was, project engineers in Pasadena and their associates at NASA Headquarters could find solace in the performance of the Ranger machine in an unorthodox situation. Even though precious little information had been returned by the sky science instruments 11 -to the greater disappointment of the scientists-engineers considered the soundness of the basic spacecraft design to be demonstrated. 12

Postflight analyses of telemetry tapes indicated the cause of the engine failure: the Agena B restart sequence had begun at the proper time, but terminated immediately when a malfunctioning switch choked the flow of red fuming nitric acid to the rocket engine. Nevertheless, sufficient oxidizer gas had been expelled to add a velocity increment of approximately 70 meters per second (158 miles per hour), assuring Ranger 1 a slightly higher orbit. 13 Steps were taken to fix the miscreant switch and resolve other tracking problems that had occurred downrange from Cape Canaveral. Perhaps more important, in the wake of the difficulties that had cropped up during the launch, the Air Force the contractors, NASA, and JPL all made extra efforts to ensure that Ranger 2 succeeded on schedule without any more embarrassing complications.


Ranger 2, Agena B 6002, and Atlas 117D had been delivered at Cape Canaveral as the Ranger 1 mission reached its premature conclusion. Preflight preparations began immediately to meet the launch period planned for October 20 to 28, 1961. In the weeks that followed, each of the vehicles completed its exhaustive preflight tests, culminating on October 11 in a satisfactory Joint Flight Acceptance Composite Test at Launch Complex 12. The Deep Space Network, in turn, completed net integration tests on October 18. Project officials made special efforts to preclude the downrange tracking and communications difficulties that had occurred in Ranger's first flight. Again, every facet of Ranger launch and tracking operations was brought to a site of readiness.

The daily launch window established for Ranger 2 was identical to that of its predecessor. The countdown began promptly at 9 p.m. on the evening of October 19, and proceeded without incident into the early morning hours of October 20. Two hours before launch mission controllers called a brief hold when telemetry indicated irregular performance in the electronics associated with Chubb's Lyman alpha scanning telescope experiment aboard Ranger 2. Officials conferred inside the blockhouse. Since engineers quickly determined that the misbehaving scientific passenger posed no threat to the missions engineering objectives, Project Manager Burke authorized the countdown to proceed. But little more than an hour later, forty minutes before launch, electrical power to the Atlas guidance package failed. As time in the launch window ebbed swiftly away, the cause of this more serious difficulty could not be readily detected, and Burke, Debus, and Nicks decided to postpone the launch. The difficulty, traced to a faulty splice in the power lead to the Atlas guidance system, was rectified readily. 14 Meantime, another space flight was to take place from Cape Canaveral the following day, and the officials rescheduled Ranger 2 for a second countdown beginning on October 22, a forty-eight-hour delay.

But J. P. Heppner, the mapetometer experimenter from the Goddard Space Flight Center, did not want Ranger 2 to leave just yet. He had approached Burke shortly before the first countdown and had again requested that the friction experiment be removed from the spacecraft. Burke, who viewed himself in a situation analogous to that of the captain of a ship threading its way through a mine field in the middle of a storm, had no patience for a discomfited passenger complaining about the champagne. Burke again refused. 15

That agitated Heppner more than ever. He had counted on two flights with his magnetometer aboard Ranger. If the friction experiment, as he suspected, did interfere with his measurements on the first mission, there would still have been time to resolve the problem in some fashion before the flight of Ranger 2. Now he could count on one Right only, and the offensive friction device with its interfering magnetic field, moreover, remained on the spacecraft. He stood to lose everything for which he had labored over eighteen long months. T. A. Chubb, though relieved to have an opportunity to fix his own Lyman alpha telescope before another launch attempt, doubtless sympathized with Heppner. To them, project engineers, in their eagerness to flight test the Ranger machine, seemed insensitive to the needs of space science.

Bypassing project management altogether on October 21, in the day between launch attempts, Heppner called and explained the disquieting situation to colleagues in the science group in the Office of Space Flight Programs at Headquarters. The next morning at the range, as preparations for the second countdown neared completion, Burke received a phone call from Flight Programs Director Silverstein. The launch of Ranger 2, Silverstein told him, would be postponed until the conflict between the friction and magnetometer experiments could be resolved. 16

It was Burke's turn to be exasperated. Besides being annoyed with Heppner's unorthodox maneuver, the Ranger Project Manager cared little whether either instrument stayed or went. The purposeful interference with established schedules and objectives simply threatened the flight. Burke notified Debus and Nicks of the development, then hastily called a conference among the parties involved. JPL Space Sciences Division Chief Hibbs presided at the meeting, in which the scientists argued their respective positions once more. And everyone in the chain of command, from Burke, Cummings, and Pickering at JPL to Nicks and Silverstein at NASA Headquarters, became involved in the decision. As events turned out, neither experiment was removed. Rittenhouse and his associates agreed to fabricate a new shield to cover the friction experiment, reducing its magnetic field to a level which Heppner found acceptable. Working around the clock, technicians completed and installed the shield in time for a second countdown beginning late on October 23, at a cost of another day in Ranger 2's October launch period. 17 But the delay this exercise occasioned was insignificant compared to continuing problems with the Atlas-Agena launch vehicle.

After the second countdown began, in the early hours of October 24, the hydraulic system used to gimbal (swivel) the Atlas vernier engines developed a leak, cancelling the launch. Then, as the third countdown commenced late in the same day, more bad news arrived. Luskin at Lockheed informed Debus that investigation of a recent Thor-Agena B failure at Vandenberg Air Force Base on the West Coast indicated that an Agena engine hydraulic system had malfunctioned. Pending an investigation and solution of this affair, officials agreed that the launch of Ranger 2 should be postponed until the next available opportunity beginning in mid-November. 18 As Burke prepared to return to his office in Pasadena he mused over events of the preceding week. In view of the Air Force Agena failure at Vandenberg, Heppner's obstinacy a few days before might actually have saved Ranger 2 after all.

The Agena hydraulic problem was found and repaired in the intervening weeks, in time for the fourth launch attempt. On November 17 Major Albert, Hueter, Nicks, and Burke gathered again for the countdown of Ranger 2, eager for the satisfaction of seeing their efforts succeed after months of painstaking labor.

Overhead the sky was clear and the temperature moderate-a welcome relief from the heat and humidity of the summer months. Good fortune seemed to be in the air as well, and the count, which began at 8:57 pm EST, proceeded normally with only minor delays (Figure 43). Then, the familiar puff of white smoke and the bellow that quickly swelled to a roar marked ignition of the Atlas engines. The vehicle strained against its retaining bolts as the thrust reached 360,000 pounds. Amid the flames and clouds of steam from the cooling water circulated in pits below, the launch vehicle was released from Launch Complex 12 at 3:12 am EST on November 18, 1961, and rose into the dark morning sky. Ascending along with it went the audible shouts and silent prayers of the assembled engineers and scientists.


Fig. 43. Ranger 2 Countdown Progresses Beneath a Full Moon

With other project officials, Burke left the blockhouse and drove across the Cape to the JPL command post in Hangar AE to await word from the downrange tracking stations. Once again the first returns were auspicious. The tracking ship in San Juan harbor and the station on Ascension Island reported that the Atlas had performed as programmed, and the first bum of the Agena had placed Ranger 2 in the desired parking orbit. The downrange stations and the communications links also performed flawlessly. With the good news, hopes rose and the tension increased proportionately. Then the mobile tracking antenna in South Africa, which acquired Ranger 2 at 3:44 am EST, showed that the Agena second burn again had not occurred: Ranger 2, like Ranger 1, was stranded in a near-earth parking orbit. Worse, as it turned out, no additional impulse had been obtained in the second-burn sequence, and the orbit of Ranger 2 was even lower and more tenuous than that of its predecessor. Its working lifetime in space would be much shorter.

Dismal though the situation was, a few embers of hope still flickered. Unaware of the true orbit, those present in the command post learned that Ranger 2 had separated from the Agena, and that its central clock timer had initiated the proper series of maneuvers and switching functions. The solar panels, high-gain antenna, and particle analyzer boom had been extended, the commands to acquire the sun and earth issued, and the high voltage to the scientific instruments turned on. But just how much less could be expected from Ranger 2 became apparent during its second and third orbital passes. Acting out its pre-designed mission, Ranger 2 began to look for the sun at the moment it entered into the earth's shadow. The earth acquisition command, issued a few minutes later while the spacecraft was still in the darkness, found Ranger unable to "see" the prescribed celestial points of reference. Ranger's attitude control system did not recover, and the spacecraft tumbled in orbit. Tumbling, Ranger 2 could not generate solar power. It used internal battery power to transmit its diagnostic and scientific telemetry to anyone who could track and listen.

Few could. The large and powerful dish antennas at the NASA-JPL deep space tracking stations were unable to keep pace with the high angular velocities and cope with the poor look angles. No backup commands, therefore, could be radioed to the hapless spacecraft. Only the small mobile tracking antenna in South Africa could successfully track and receive telemetry from the spacecraft, and even it would not view Ranger 2 for long. On its fifth pass over that station, some seven hours after launch, Ranger's orbit descended below the South African horizon. No further tracking could be accomplished. Twenty hours after rising above the beach sands of Florida on a stiletto of fire, in its nineteenth orbit, Ranger 2 died. No one heard the final sing-song tones of the analog telemetry on November 19, as the cart-wheeling spacecraft dipped into the atmosphere and quickly incinerated. 19


The JPL command post at Cape Canaveral had taken on the cast of a somber requiem when the bad news first arrived. Voices were subdued and emotions held in check as controllers mechanically went about the tasks of receiving and recording available telemetry. The next day, having paid their last respects, project officials began to drift away to their respective offices around the country. Tired and dispirited, Burke was among the last to leave, returning to Los Angeles on November 19 to prepare for the postflight investigation-one that would focus on the performance of the Atlas-Agena launch vehicle.

When development of the vehicle began at Lockheed in 1959, the Air Force had publicly announced its intention to employ the upper stage Agena B in numerous military satellite missions. NASA officials had selected the Atlas-Agena B launch vehicle for Project Ranger in part for the reliability that they anticipated would follow these Air Force flights. But the Agena B had not appeared in the Air Force flight schedules as rapidly as NASA hoped; in fact, because Ranger had held to schedule while other projects slipped, only one other Atlas-Agena B actually had ever been flown before. Long-time Ranger hands recalled the NASA-Agena B development difficulties at Lockheed in 1960. And the more recent miscalculation of the Agena B's performance capability in mid-1961 resulting in the lightweight Block II Rangers-still raised hackles among engineers on every side. 20 Now, two consecutive Right failures on top of the prior troubles generated disturbing speculation. If the Agena B design were sound, either Lockheed was not doing its homework or the civilian space agency had been assigned the costly and ridiculous task of debugging the vehicle for the Air Force.

The implications were quite clear to Major General Osmond J. Ritland, Commander of the Air Force Space Systems Division in Inglewood, California. Two Agena failures in an important NASA space program quite obviously affected the credibility and technical reputation of the Air Force and its contractors, not to mention prospects for individual careers. The Air Force preferred to straighten affairs in its own house before NASA pressed the issue. Two days after Ranger 2 met its fiery end in space, General Ritland fired off a stem memo to Colonel Henry H. Eichel in charge of his launch vehicle office. He ordered Eichel immediately to form an Agena Failure Investigating Board composed of NASA, Lockheed, and Air Force personnel. He expected the board to conduct an investigation and return with its findings and recommendations within nine days: no later than November 30. He wanted all necessary corrective action to be implemented before the flight of Ranger 3. 21 If the General had anything to say about it, every Lockheed Agena B supplied to NASA would meet or exceed performance specifications.

Colonel Eichel, matching his reputation for toughness, moved with dispatch. The investigating board was named and notified; on November 27 it met at the Lockheed offices in Sunnyvale. Lockheed participants reported on analyses of the Agena telemetry tapes during the first day of the two-day meeting. They found the roll gyroscope in the Agena B guidance package to have been inoperative at takeoff, most likely because of a faulty relay in the power circuitry. The Agena's attitude control system had compensated for the roll control failure through gas jetting, but the supply of attitude control gas was exhausted by the time the Agena completed first burn. In a parking orbit without attitude control, the Agena's roll motion had been converted entirely to pitch-yaw or "propeller" motion. Second bum of the Bell Hustler rocket engine had failed since the liquid propellants inside the Agena tanks had sloshed away from the engine intake lines. 22

On the morning of December 4, 1961, the Air Force formally conveyed these results to NASA. Luskin of Lockheed, Air Force Colonel Henry Eichel, and Major Jack Albert presented the board's case and plans for remedial action in the newly completed NASA Headquarters building in Washington, a block-long marble veneer and glass edifice that contrasted sharply with the turreted and weathered red brick pile of the Smithsonian Institution down the street on Independence Avenue. NASA and JPL officials accepted the findings and corrective measures. Luskin pledged to submit a report on the accomplished changes in early January 1962, in advance of the flight of Ranger 3, as well as review the entire reliability program for the NASA Agena B. 23 When the conference broke up at lunchtime, Luskin, Eichel, and Albert were satisfied that they had solved the Air Force-Ranger launch vehicle problem.

But the representatives of JPL, NASA Headquarters, and the Marshall Space Flight Center reconvened after lunch. In light of past performance, they deemed the approved corrective measures, though necessary and desirable, insufficient. Cortright instructed Hueter to initiate a separate and detailed review of Lockheed field operating equipment and procedures, with emphasis on eliminating any differences in checkout procedure remaining between Air Force and NASA space projects. 24 NASA Headquarters, changing its attitude from customer to consumer, had decided to undertake greater involvement in matters of Agena procurement and preflight testing.

JPL, for its part, also altered preflight checkout procedures for the spacecraft. Based on the experience with Ranger 1, 25 the Systems Division decided that high voltages hereafter would not be applied to scientific experiments during a launch countdown. To accomplish a midcourse maneuver, succeeding Ranger spacecraft would incorporate a fueled rocket engine on the pad. Any high-voltage discharge that ignited Ranger's squibs and other pyrotechnics here could have severe repercussions, possibly destroying the spacecraft as well as the fueled Atlas-Agena B launch vehicle. Burke Agreed with this decision - and with the rationale behind it. The experiments, after all, would have completed "at least 15 systems tests before [being] committed to flight; all of this after design type approval testing and flight acceptance testing... If the equipment is so suspect that personnel would worry over its condition between the last systems test and launch, then it is not reliable enough to be considered as flight equipment." 26

At least the engineers had the lunar flights in which to see Ranger perfected, but the flight of Ranger 2 effectively Slammed the door on any substantial dividend for sky scientists. Placed in near-earth orbits, Heppner's magnetometers had been saturated by the earth's magnetic field on both test missions, Van Allen's cadmium-sulphide particle detectors likewise had been overwhelmed by sunlight for the greater part of each mission, as were the light flash detectors of Alexander's cosmic dust experiment Though the Lyman alpha telescopes so carefully prepared by Chubb had returned some background measurements, the pictures were mostly smeared, and little was known about the direction in which the telescopes were pointing when the spacecraft tumbled. And so it went. Ironically, among the few instruments to return any data of value were the friction device and the AEC's Vela Hotel experiment in the flight of Ranger 1. 27 But if sky science had lost out on Rangers 1 and 2, at least lunar science, its practitioners assumed, still stood to benefit from Rangers 3, 4, and 5.

Chapter 5  link to the previous page        link to the next page  Chapter 7

Chapter Six - 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. "Mission Objectives and Design Criteria," in Ranger Spacecraft Design Specification Book Spec. No. RA12-2-IIOA (Pasadena, California: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology), November 1, 1960, p. 2 (2-1094b).

2. See Harold T. Luskin, "The Ranger Booster," Astronautics, September 1961, pp. 30-31, 73-74.

3. See "The Deep Space Network" in Chapter Five of this volume.

4. Space Programs Summary No. 37-11, Volume I for the period July 1, 1961, to September 1, 1961 (Pasadena, California: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, October 1, 1961), pp. 40-41. Calibration and system evaluation exercises already had been developed to maintain the accuracy of the Deep Space Instrumentation Facility. Star tracking by optically pointing the large antennas maintained their mechanical and readout capabilities. Radio beacons were flown on balloons, helicopters, and fixed wing aircraft to provide signal acquisition practice and to demonstrate the smooth operation of the deep space tracking system.

5. JPL internal document, "Deep Space Instrumentation Facility" (2-929).

6. Space Programs Summary No. 37-11, Volume I, pp. 3-4; The Ranger Project: Annual Report for 196](U) (JPL TR 32-241. Pasadena, California: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, June 15, 1962), pp. 361-362; TWX from William Pickering to Abe Silverstein, subject: "Summary of Difficulties Encountered with Spacecraft, Launch Vehicle, and Supporting Equipment at Cape," August 9, 1961 (2-1456); JPL Interoffice Memo from Leonard Bronstein and A.E. Dickinson to Distribution, subject: " RA-1 Spacecraft Failure Analysis," August 10, 1961 (2-2483).

7. The friction experiment was designed to measure the coefficient of various metals rotated by a small electric motor in the space environment. In this case, its electronics package stood accused as the magnetic culprit. See "Space Science and the Original Ranger Missions" in Chapter Four of this volume.

8. Interview of James Burke by Cargill Hall, January 27, 1969, p. 8 (2-1391).

9. Space Programs Summary No. 37-11, Volume I, pp. 41 -45.

10. Ibid., p. 4; JPL Ranger Technical Bulletins Nos. 1 through 5, August 24 September 5, 1961 (2-93 1 ); Space Programs Summary No. 37-15, Volume V1 for the period March 1, 1962, to June 1, 1962 (Pasadena, California: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, June 30, 1962), p. 3; Nicholas A. Renzetti, Tracking and Data Acquisition for Ranger Missions 1-5 (JPL TM 33-174. Pasadena, California: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, July 1, 1964), pp. 18-19.

11. A. E. Dickinson, ed., Spacecraft Flight Performance: Final Report (Pasadena, California: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, November 2, 196 1 ), pp. 10- 13 (2-465).

12. NASA memorandum from Edgar Cortright to James Webb, subject: "Ranger 1 (P-32) Status Report No. 4, " September 1, 1961 (2-679); Sixth Semiannual Report to the Congress: July 1, 1961, through December 31, 1961 (Washington: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1962), p. 64.

13. Dickinson, Spacecraft Flight Performance, p. 1.

14. The Ranger Project: Annual Report for 196](U), p. 365; Space Programs Summary No. 37-12, Volume I for the period September 1, 1961, to November 1, 1961 (Pasadena, California: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, December 1, 1961 ), p. 2.

15. Interview of Burke by Hall, January 27, 1969, p. 9 (2-1391).

16. Interview of Allen Wolfe by Cargill Hall, November 5, 1969, p. 2 (2-1533).

17. Space Programs Summary No. 37-12, Volume I, p. 2.

18. The Ranger Project: Annual Report for 196](U), p. 366.

19. Space Programs Summary No. 37-13, Volume I for the period November 1, 1961, to January 1, 1962 (Pasadena, California: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, February 1, 1962), p. 4; The Ranger Project: Annual Report for 196](U), pp. 366-367, 396-397; A. E. Dickinson, "RA-2 Preliminary Spacecraft Performance Report," November 29, 1961 (2-2133); Rennet, Tracking and Data Acquisition for Ranger Missions 1-5, pp. 21, 24.

20. See "A Difference in Weights and Measures" in Chapter Four of this volume.

21. Letter from Osmond Ritland to Henry Eichel, November 21, 1961, in Agena B Failure Investigation Board, November 30, 1961, Appendix A (2-2136).

22. James Burke, JPL Trip Report, subject: "Meeting of the USAF Failure Investigation Board at LMSC, November 27 and November 28, 1961, " prepared November 30, 1961 (2-2134). Along with Eichel, board members included Air Force Ranger Chief Major Jack Albert, various Lockheed participants, NASA personnel from Hueter's Agena Office and Debus' Launch Operations Directorate, and JPL Ranger Project Manager James Burke, Reliability Chief Brooks T. Morris, and JPL Launch Vehicle Integration Chief Harry J. Margraf.

23. Committee report on the review of the Reliability and Quality Assurance Programs of Lockheed Missiles and Space Company, conducted January 24-25, 1962 (2-2270b).

24. James Burke, JPL Trip Report, subject: "Ranger II Failure Review (12-4) and Agena Management Meeting (12-5), Washington, D.C.," prepared December 7, 1961 (2-414).

25. See "A Learning Experience" in this chapter.

26. JPL Interoffice Memo from M. R. Mesnard to G. F. Baker, subject: "Ranger Follow-on, Scientific Power 'On' During Countdown," January 8, 1962, p. 2 (2-1224); see also, "Mission Objectives and Design Criteria Ranger P-53 through P-56 Spacecraft (RA-6 through PLA-9)" in Ranger Spacecraft Design Specification Book Spec. No. RL-2-110, November 8, 1961 (2-1124).

27. Space Programs Summary No. 37-13, Volume I, p. 7; J. B. Rittenhouse, et al., "Friction Measurements on a Low Earth Satellite, " A SLE Transactions Volume 6, 1963, pp. 161-177.

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