LUNAR IMPACT: A History of Project Ranger


Instrumented space exploration has just begun. Few bibliographic aids to historical research in this field have been published, and the bulk of the primary source material resides, unevenly indexed, in the archives and retired records of the responsible agencies.* In pursuing research for Ranger, I examined material at various locations. The NASA History Office Archives in Washington contained selected correspondence from a number of NASA offices, as well as special studies, minutes of meetings, surveys, and planning documents. Correspondence and other documents pertaining exclusively to Ranger, NASA relations with Caltech-JPL, and space science activities were found in the retired records of the NASA offices at the Federal Records Center, Suitland, Maryland. The minutes and correspondence of the President's Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) are in the custody of the National Science Foundation but housed for the most part in the National Archives in Washington. Regrettably, many of the PSAC documents are still classified, making them exceedingly difficult to view, much less to copy.

* These documents at NASA and JPL are open to the accredited scholar. in April 1976 the NASA History Office published a useful directory, Research in NASA History: A Guide that is available on request.

The retired records of the Project Office, Lunar Program Office, and the Director's Office at JPL, and in certain instances the minutes of the Caltech Board of Trustees at Caltech, yielded the information on the contractor's activity in Project Ranger. Financial data were obtained in contemporary progress reports and other material from the JPL project office and the NASA Financial Management Division. A few of the NASA and JPL Ranger records, particularly the investigative reports, remained classified when the research began; all of them, however, had been declassified by the time the manuscript was completed.

Besides archival collections of paper and microfilm, personal interviews and movie films added insight and helped me comprehend the Ranger era. I taped and transcribed virtually all interviews. The person interviewed received a copy of the transcript, and was encouraged to correct and amplify the text. NASA officials answering questions prepared mostly beforehand were James Webb, Robert Seamans, Homer Newell, Edgar Cortright, Oran Nicks, William Cunningham, and Walter Jakobowski; those interviewed at Caltech and JPL were Lee DuBridge, John Hunt, William Pickering, Alvin Luedecke, Clifford Cummings, James Burke, Harris Schurmeier, Gordon Kautz, and Allen Wolfe.

As each person interviewed saw Ranger from a different level and perspective, each contributed to my understanding of the project and its place in a much larger, ongoing NASA program. I sensed what might be termed "purposeful reticence" on only a few occasions; I was impressed generally with the candor of the answers and the willingness of those interviewed to discuss issues that had once stirred institutional sensitivities and anguish. Movie film, existing in the form of JPL lunar and planetary program progress reports and postimpact news conferences, also proved helpful. Though sometimes encumbered by a sanguine sound track, they transported me back in time to view fabrication and test procedures and meet some of the principals around the machinery and in the facilities of the day.

Published sources used for the history of Ranger included commercial books, trade and professional journals, government publications, and newspaper articles. For the space sciences, J. Tuzo Wilson, IGY, The Year of the New Moons (1961); Walter Sullivan, Assault on the Unknown (1961); Patrick Hughes, A Century of Weather Service (1970); Homer Newell, High Altitude Rocket Research (1953); Lloyd Berkner and Hugh Odishaw, eds., Science in Space (1961); Samuel Glasstone, Sourcebook on the Space Sciences (1965); Wilmot Hess, ed., Introduction to Space Science (1965); and Robert Jastrow, Red Giants and White Dwarfs (1967), proved most illuminating. On the politics of research and space exploration, I found J. J. Penick, Jr., et al., eds., The Politics of American Science (1965); Daniel Greenberg, The Politics of Pure Science (1967); Jerome Weisner, Where Science and Politics Meet (1965); Vernon van Dyke, Pride and Power (1964); and John Logsdon, The Decision to Go to the Moon (1970), especially useful.

Surveying the creation of NASA and the midcentury state of missile and space technology, I consulted Alison Griffith, The National Aeronautics and Space Act: A Study of the Development of Public Policy (1962); Robert Rosholt, An Administrative History of NASA, 1958-1963 (1966); Herbert York, Race to Oblivion (1970); Constance Green and Milton Lornask, Vanguard- A History (1971); Eugene Emme, ed., The History of Rocket Technology (1964); Michael Armacost, The Politics of Weapons Innovation (1969); and John Medaris with Arthur Gordon, Countdown for Decision (1960). The trade publications, professional journals, and colloquia used most often for this study included Aviation Week and Space Technology, Missiles and Rockets, Astronautics, Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, Science, Journal of Geophysical Research, Proceedings of the Lunar and Planetary Exploration Colloquium (1958-1961), Annals of the International Geophysical Year (1959), and the science sections of Time and Saturday Review.

Government publications proved indispensable. Congressional committee and subcommittee reports for the annual NASA authorization and appropriation hearings, as well as special studies, and investigative proceedings and findings, recorded how the space agency and JPL, Ranger, and the space science program fared in Congress. In the Executive Branch, special reports like A Statement by the President and Introduction to Outer Space (March 6, 1958), Report to the President Elect of the Ad Hoc Committee on Space (January 11, 1961 ), and PSAC, Report of the Ad Hoc Panel on Man-In-Space (November 14, 1960), suggested preferred directions for space research. Government-solicited opinion of private consultants, such as that of the National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council, in A Review of Space Research, Publication 1079 (1962), and Space Research: Directions for the Future, Publication 1403 (1966), improved on this knowledge. The Report to the Congress from the President of the United States, U.S. Aeronautics and Space Activities (1959-1965) reviewed annually the progress of and plans for the nation's space program. Various NASA publications, the semiannual reports to Congress (1959-1965) and Significant Achievements in Space Science 1965, SP-136 (1967), also proved helpful. The annual NASA chronologies, Astronautics and Aeronautics, provided rapid and valuable reference to the forces operating within and upon the space agency.

Contemporary newspaper accounts, though sometimes at odds with the primary records, often captured the drama and excitement of a moment, or shed light on the motives and perceptions of Ranger's participants. For this purpose I most often used The New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Washington Post, and local papers in Los Angeles and Pasadena. I also examined personal narratives covering JPL activities prior to the Laboratory's association with NASA;* regrettably, however, none that deal with the Ranger era exist. It is to be hoped that Keith Glennan, James Webb, Homer Newell, Lee DuBridge, William Pickering, and other NASA, JPL, and Caltech officials will consider writing their memoirs in the near future.

*Viz., Theodore von Karman with Lee Edson, The Wind and Beyond (1967); Frank Malina, "The Rocket Pioneers: Memoirs of the Infant Days of Rocketry at Caltech." Engineering and Science, February 1968; "Origins and First Decade of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory," in Eugene Emme, ed., The History of Rocket Technology (1964); "America's First Long-Range Missile and Space Exploration Program: The ORDCIT Project of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, 1943-1946,"Spaceflight, December 1973; and William Pickering with James Wilson, "Countdown to Space Exploration: A Memoir of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, 1944-1958," as reprinted in Lab-Oratory, 1975/4.

Except for some of the published secondary sources, all documents used in this history, wherever procured, were catalogued and entered by number in the JPL History Office archives. This number appears in parentheses at the end of each citation.

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