Our SpaceFlight Heritage: First steps – the story of Surveyor 1
Fifty years ago, on May 30, 1966, an Atlas LV-3C Centaur-D rocket lifted off from what was called Cape Kennedy’s Launch Complex 36A in Florida. Perched atop the launch vehicle was a robotic probe named Surveyor 1.
Manufactured by the Hughes Aircraft Company and managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), this 2,194-pound (995-kilogram) machine was the United States’ newest attempt to successfully explore Earth’s nearest celestial neighbor: the Moon.
Much was hanging on the success of Surveyor 1. The U.S. was in a heated race with its geopolitical rival, the Soviet Union, to place the first human being on the surface of the Moon, and – in the words of U.S. President John F. Kennedy – “return him safely to the Earth” before the end of that decade.
As Surveyor 1 was being flung into the blackness of space on that spring day in 1966, the race seemed to be going to the Soviets, who already owned numerous “victories” in lunar exploration. This list included the first lunar flyby (Luna 1), the first probe impact (Luna 2), the first imaging of the previously hidden lunar farside (Luna 3), and, most recently at the time, the first soft landing on the Moon with their spherical Luna 9 probe just four months earlier.
In comparison, the United States’ lunar efforts, which began in 1958, had produced only three missions that returned any significant data about the Moon – the last three members of the Ranger series. The rest had either been destroyed during launch, fell back to Earth prematurely, missed the Moon entirely, or – in the case of Ranger 4 – impacted on the lunar farside unable to receive any commands during its journey due to an onboard computer failure. America was genuinely concerned that the Soviets would indeed have cosmonauts circling the Moon and perhaps even roaming its surface by 1970, defeating their efforts with Project Apollo, which had yet to achieve even its first manned test flight.
It was up to Surveyor 1 and the men and women behind this series to show the rest of the world that the United States could safely land a vehicle on the Moon and study its surface. As a result, the lander was only equipped with a camera to send back images of its landing site. However, scientists would still learn a good deal about the composition of the lunar regolith from over one hundred engineering sensors placed about Surveyor 1.
This information would include either dispelling or confirming the fear that the surface dust could not support a heavy landing craft and cause such a vessel to sink into the regolith – rather vital data for a vehicle carrying two astronauts as the Apollo Lunar Module would be doing several years hence.
Sixty-three hours after launch, Surveyor 1 arrived at the Moon on June 2, where a series of retro and vernier rockets slowed the robot explorer down until it was a mere 12 feet (3.4 meters) above the surface. The braking system was then automatically shut off and the three-legged craft made a relatively gentle freefall descent to the ground in the southwest region of the lunar mare Oceanus Procellarum (Latin for Ocean of Storms). After years of frustration and failure, America had finally placed a working probe on the Moon.
“We figured the probability of success at around 10 to 15 percent,” said Justin Rennilson the co-principal investigator on the Surveyor television experiment. “We had a lot of problems, not only on the spacecraft but also at JPL. The lab, which managed the Surveyor program for NASA, had just recently finished a new space flight operations facility, the SFOF. This had a telemetry connection with Goldstone, a tracking station in the California desert (now part of NASA’s Deep Space Network) that would be accommodating the communication needs of the spacecraft during landing. But there were signal dropouts. They didn’t know what to do, so they sent me to Goldstone.”
Surveyor 1, having not been swallowed up in the lunar dust, after all, was soon returning engineering data and the first of what would eventually be 11,240 images of its landing site. The surface was relatively flat, though there were a few small shallow craters nearby and various collections of boulders. In the distance, the probe’s camera revealed a mountain range that was actually the rim of a very large crater created by a meteorite impact eons ago.
The lander survived both its first lunar day and subsequent night, which are equivalent to two weeks apiece on Earth. Daytime temperatures on the essentially airless Moon are well above the boiling point of water, while at night they can drop to minus 280 degrees Fahrenheit (–173 °C), far harsher than the coldest temperature ever recorded in Antarctica.
Video courtesy of JPL
Surveyor 1 would transmit even more images of its surroundings back to Earth during its second lunar day, but a serious drop in battery power ended that particular data return upon the start of the second lunar night. However, the solar-powered lander would manage to keep signaling its creators with valuable engineering data until January 7, 1967.
“I remember sitting there watching the oscilloscope as the spacecraft was coming down, all the way to the lunar surface. ‘God, the signal is still there and it is still working!’ I thought. We were successful and it was just astounding,” Rennilson said.
The success of the first member of the Surveyor series would be followed by six more such landers. Although the second and fourth probes would fail before touchdown, the rest of the series survived their space journeys and sent back priceless images and other information both for lunar science and to clear the path for the crews who would make history on Project Apollo, many of whom would eventually follow them to that alien world.
Surveyor 1 was still sitting in Oceanus Procellarum when the U.S. Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) beamed back images of the historic explorer in 2009.
Watch televised coverage from CBS News of Surveyor 1 landing on the Moon and returning the first images of the lunar surface from an American Moon probe back to Earth.
Video courtesy of CBS
Larry Klaes is an author and freelance journalist specializing in news and educational work on the sciences. Klae's past endeavors include editor of SETIQuest magazine and President of the Boston chapter of the National Space Society (NSS). Klaes joined SpaceFlight Insider in 2016.