LUNAR IMPACT: A History of Project Ranger


R. Cargill Hall has written a history. Readers not familiar with the state of writing about twentieth century technology and science may not realize his achievement. Accounts-so-called histories-of recent technology and science are often little more than simplistic narratives focusing almost entirely upon sequences in hardware development or upon scientific idea explication. In commendable contrast, Hall organized a coherent narrative and analysis of complex institutions, people, ideas, and machines changing in character and in relationship one to another over time.

His history of the Ranger Project is also critical and mature. He avoided neither complexity and contradiction nor reasoned analysis and judgments about episodes and people. He allowed for accident, unintended consequences, shifting priorities, budgetary adjustments, and over-determined events. This is evidenced by a frank account of six superficially ignominious. Ranger failures, an analysis of the effects of NASA management by committee, an appraisal of the impact of high-priority Project Apollo upon Ranger, and a, consideration of the consequences of Ranger's being done at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a university rather than an industrial laboratory. He comprehended how these and other factors generally influenced the project and shaped the automatic machine, the exploring spacecraft, at its hard core.

Lunar Impact transforms the records of a technological project into history by applying the canons of historical scholarship. The techniques and modes of interpretation are the general historian's. Because of this, Ranger emerges from the study not simply as a machine designed and operated by technical specialists but, more complexly and convincingly, as the focus of activities resulting from the conflicting interests, the power struggles, and the contrasting objectives of individuals, groups, and institutions. Viewed in this way, the writing of the history of the Ranger project becomes a challenge similar to the writing of the history of political campaigns and business enterprises.

The reader will recognize elements common to many kinds of history; he or she may also note the development of themes often encountered in large-scale technological and scientific projects. Most obvious is the tension between the values and goals of science and of engineering. Throughout Hallís history one encounters scientists striving to shape Ranger so that it could perform a number of complex scientific experiments; the readier also meets engineers endeavoring to design a machine realistically contrived to perform one or two priority tasks like photographing the surface of the moon. Another significant theme concerns the tension permeating the Jet Propulsion Laboratory between the academic spirit of free enquiry and loose disciplinary structure, and the industrial laboratory style of project-oriented organization and highly directed problem-solving. These tensions were severe, sometimes constructive and at other times frustrating. Hall succeeds in seeing the situations in the perspectives of the various principals and principles.

Hall's book is also unusual and interesting because it reckons, as noted, with failure, the frequently ignominious inadequacy of the early machines, launches, and operations. Hall absorbed enough of the wisdom of experienced managers and engineers not to be startled or shocked into rash pronouncements and value judgments about failure. He learned that early Ranger was a high-risk endeavor, venturing into treacherous waters in which a number of careers foundered. In writing of failure, Hall had an advantage over his counterparts doing political histories: he did not have to contend with the host of simplistic myths that accumulate about the sites of political disasters. As yet, technology and science affairs are not easily enough comprehended to attract the sensation seeker and the simplifier.

On the other hand, Hall, unlike the political historian, did have the formidable problem of making complex technology comprehensible to the generally-informed reader. Wisely and considerately, he wrote about technical and scientific matters with his professed audience in mind-historians, interested laymen, and managers; he resisted the temptation to write for the highly sensitive, deeply involved, and specialized readers of the NASA "comment cycle." Also his technical and scientific information is related by him to general themes. The personalities of salient scientists, engineers, and managers are delineated insofar as these influenced the character of the technological artifacts and the scientific ideas.

Finally, the agency sponsoring this study should be commended. A large publicly-funded administrative enterprise such as NASA understandably gravitates toward sustaining public relations and strives for favorable public opinion. Hall's book emerged from the NASA matrix surprisingly free of the constraining influences. The engineers, scientists, and managers at NASA and at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory do not appear in this book as cutouts; they do emerge as believable three-dimensional men involved in an extremely interesting and significant episode in recent history.

Thomas P. Hughes

University of Pennsylvania

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