DESTINATION MOON: A History of the Lunar Orbiter Program
The Call for a Program of Exploration
[1] During the decade of the sixties, three major ventures of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration thrust America's unmanned exploration of the Moon outside the Earth's atmosphere: the Ranger Program, the Surveyor Program., and the Lunar Orbiter Program. Initiated before President John F. Kennedy's May 25, 1961, request for a national decision to make a manned lunar landing in the sixties, Ranger and Surveyor gave the United States its first close look at the Moon. The original objectives of the programs had not envisioned imminent exploration of the Moon by men. Instead, NASA had developed highly proficient instrumented means for preliminary exploration without direct applications in an undertaking such as the Apollo manned lunar landing program.
One of the chief spokesmen for lunar exploration in the early days of America's space program was Nobel Laureate Harold C. Urey. In his address to the Lunar and Planetary Colloquium meeting on October 29, 1958.,.at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Urey called for a stepped-up United [2] States effort to explore the Earth's natural sattelite1. He summarized what scientists then knew about the origin and composition of the Moon: that much speculation but little conclusive knowledge existed concerning the Moon's environment.
Man had noticed many unique and unusual phenomena on the lunar surface through optical telescopes since Galileo's first observations in 1609, but Earth's atmosphere limited explorative abilities of scientists. Urey concluded that automated probes would enable human observation to pierce the atmosphere for more detailed, precise looks at the Moon. Such probes would allow man to take the next logical step before actual manned lunar missions brought him to the Moon's surface. That surface, unlike Earth's, had not experienced millions of years of atmospheric erosion and weathering processes, as far as observations up to that time revealed. What had it experienced? The answer to this question could possibly explain the birth and development of the Earth and , indeed, of the solar system.2
[3] Following Urey's call for intensified efforts to extend America's lunar exploration capabilities, but not necessarily in response to it, the newly created National Aeronautics and Space Administration requested the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to develop a study of the requirements for a multi-phase program to explore the Moon, Albert R. Hibbs, Chief of the Research Analysis Section at JPL, organized a study group to analyze the problem. On April 30, 1959, he submitted the group's findings to NASA Headquarters. Among other steps the Hibbs Report proposed placing a satellite
in a well-controlled orbit around the moon using terminal guidance.... High resolution photographs of the surface of the moon will be taken at various wave lengths and polarizations. These photographs should provide information on the surface characteristics of the moon that will be valuable for choosing a site for a lunar soft landing.3
The Hibbs Report suggested a more sophisticated approach toward lunar exploration than that which NASA actually undertook, and it did not become the basis for the Lunar Orbiter Program. Nevertheless, it indicated the kind of probe which would perform necessary, extensive photography of the Moon's surface. The lunar orbiter [4] concept later was adapted from the Surveyor Program which NASA Headquarters initiated with JPL in May 1960.
In December 1959 NASA and JPL had started the Ranger Program, the first step in NASA's unmanned lunar exploration venture. Surveyor, the second major program in this venture, originally envisioned two kinds of probes: a softlanding spacecraft for on-site investigation of the Moon's surface and an orbiter for investigation of the near-lunar environment. They would share common hardware., thereby probably reducing costs.
Both Surveyor Lander and Surveyor Orbiter, as Congressionally authorized programs, called for very sophisticated spacecraft whose hardware would require major development. The burden of this development fell upon JPL and together with the Ranger and Mariner programs made it the pioneering agency in the difficult process of designing and building automated, long-life spacecraft for deep space exploration.
The Surveyor Orbiter did not materialize. The Ranger and the Surveyor Lander programs, as first-generation spacecraft programs, came to overtax the manpower and facilities at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the Centaur Rocket Program at the Marshall Space Flight Center experienced development problems and was eventually transferred to the Lewis Research Center. Centaur was to be the launch vehicle for Surveyor, and, as originally envisioned, [5] it was to have a capability to put an 1,100-kilogram spacecraft into a translunar trajectory. At Lewis this capability was reduced to 950 kilograms, causing redesign of the Surveyor Lander.
In the wake of early Soviet space achievements the American space program became enveloped in far-reaching political competition with the Soviet Union. In this atmosphere, the United States counted heavily on the Ranger and Surveyor programs, pioneering endeavors in the application of new technology, to achieve an urgently needed "first" in space.
The first six Ranger missions, between August 1961 and February 1964, experienced no complete mission success, but they acquired valuable data on the performance of systems. The publicity of their shortcomings heightened the tension, frustration, and anxiety among Americans about the state of U.S. technological prowess, while it drowned out the significance of the lessons learned by NASA and JPL. By June of 1964 the congressional Subcommittee on NASA Oversight had reviewed the Ranger Program and had concluded that
...progress in improving testing and fabrication techniques at JPL Is a step-by-step process with little direction from NASA Headquarters and that major improvement actions take place primarily as a result of failures. The subcommittee recognizes that the Ranger Program is both unique and complex in the strictest sense of a scientific accomplishment and supervisory practices as currently [6] in use throughout the missile-space industry would go far to develop improved testing and fabrication procedures needed a sophisticated spacecraft such as Ranger. 4