The Moon and the Space Science Program

NASA's initial space science programs were largely defined by the projects transferred from other agencies and were mainly concerned with the study of phenomena in near-earth space. But shortly after taking over direction of space sciences, Homer Newell established a Theoretical Division to support programs in planetology and lunar science.1 Unlike space physicists and astronomers, those interested in the moon and planets had little hard data to work with. Lunar and planetary science in 1960 was a field for theoreticians, and few scientists devoted their entire attention to it. So when Robert Jastrow, whom Newell appointed to head the new division, set out to learn all he could about current theories and research in that area, he had a very short list of sources to consult. High on the list was the name of Harold C. Urey, professor at large at the University of California at San Diego.

Urey, a chemist whose scientific career spanned four decades, had won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1934. During the second World War he had directed one of the major projects for concentrating uranium-235, the fissionable material of the first atomic bomb. A scientist of catholic interests, Urey became fascinated by the distribution of the chemical elements within the earth and in the solar system. Noting that there had been an extensive separation of iron from the rocky materials of the earth and meteorites, he began to consider possible mechanisms for the accretion of the planets out of the primordial matter of the solar system. In 1952 he published a book on the origin of the planets, in which he asserted his belief that the moon might provide the key to understanding the formation of the solar system. On retiring from the University of Chicago in 1958 at age 65, he continued to teach and conduct research in California, devoting considerable time to cosmology.2

Urey brought a chemist's approach to a subject that had previously been the province of astronomers and astrophysicists. Like almost any chemist of his era, he would have preferred to have samples that he could study in the laboratory. Lacking lunar samples, he used information from meteorites, plus such physical data as were available concerning the moon, to construct working hypotheses. When Apollo was created, Urey supported it for the contributions it could make to his own research interests, but he was conscious of its nonscientific value as well. In 1961 he thought that the lunar landing was too expensive for its potential scientific return, but on reflection he decided that if the money were not spent on Apollo it might well go to less productive projects and changed his mind.3 Urey never failed to criticize NASA's practices when he felt criticism was justified, but on the whole he was a dependable supporter of the lunar landing program.4

Impressed by Urey's exposition of his theories and the potential they held for space investigation, Jastrow brought him to Headquarters to confer with Newell about possible NASA programs for lunar exploration. Their enthusiasm convinced Newell that space science should make room for a program in lunar and planetary sciences, and in January 1959 he appointed an ad hoc Working Group on Lunar Exploration to coordinate the efforts of NASA and academic scientists and to evaluate proposals for lunar experiments.5

Such interest as there was in lunar missions in early 1959 was at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).* Even there, however, many scientists favored missions to Venus and Mars rather than to the moon, partly because the best opportunities for launch to the near planets occurred less frequently.6 The moon - in earth's back yard, so to speak - offered an optimum launch opportunity once every lunar month, and if one were missed because of problems with a launch vehicle the delay was only four weeks, whereas a mission to Mars would have to wait two years if an optimum launch date were missed. While JPL was developing a plan for 12 deep-space missions, including 5 moon probes, Jastrow was urging Newell to accelerate NASA's lunar exploration programs.

Once again, however, the Soviets' eagerness to achieve space "firsts" exerted its pernicious influence on American space programs. Even before the Working Group for Lunar Exploration could finish drawing up a list of recommendations for lunar missions, the Russian Luna I swung by the moon and into solar orbit, measuring magnetic fields and particles in space. A month after JPL submitted its plan to Headquarters on April 30, 1959, orders went out to Pasadena to reorient the program to concentrate on lunar orbiting and soft-landing missions. (Apparently Headquarters felt that the more frequent opportunities for lunar missions offered the best chance to beat the Russians to their apparent target.) As the year progressed, the Soviets sent two more Luna spacecraft to the moon; one crashlanded, the other photographed the hidden side of the moon for the first time. In December Headquarters killed JPL's planetary exploration plan, in part because of problems with the proposed Atlas-Vega launch vehicle, and substituted a program of seven lunar missions using the Atlas-Agena B. Emphasis was on obtaining high-resolution photographs of the moon's surface, but some space science instruments would be carried as well. JPL would also investigate the feasibility of sending a hard-landing instrument package to transmit data about the moon. This project, called "Ranger," was explicitly recognized as a high-risk project geared to very short schedules and intended to capture the initiative in lunar exploration from the Soviet Union.7

Since lunar and planetary exploration seemed to have a promising future, Homer Newell established a Lunar and Planetary Program Office at Headquarters in January 1960 to manage it.8 Initially, Ranger was the the new office's only lunar project. In July 1960 a second, Surveyor, was approved. More ambitious than Ranger, Surveyor had the objective of soft-landing a large (2,500 pounds, 1,100 kilograms) instrumented spacecraft on the moon's surface to gather physical and chemical information about the lunar soil and return it to earth by telemetry.9

Both Ranger and Surveyor were technically ambitious projects, requiring improvements in spacecraft stabilization, navigation and guidance, and telemetry. Both encountered technical and management problems that pushed back their completion dates to the point where rapidly changing events made their original objectives obsolete. In 1960, neither Ranger nor Surveyor was primarily intended to support the manned lunar landing, which at that time was still only an idea in the minds of NASA's planners, although both, if successful, would yield information useful to that project. But the pressures generated by the needs of Apollo between 1961 and 1963 forced Ranger and Surveyor into supporting roles for the manned space flight program, to the intense chagrin of the space scientists.

* JPL's director William Pickering had proposed an unmanned lunar probe as a response to Sputnik but had found no support for it.

1. R. Cargill Hall, Lunar Impact: A History of Project Ranger, NASA SP-4210 (Washington 1977), pp. 15- 16.

2. Stephen G. Brush, "Nickel for Your Thoughts: Urey and the Origin of the Moon," Science 217 (1982):891-98.

3. Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, Scientists' Testimony on Space Goals, Hearings, 88/1, June 10, 1963, pp. 51, 52-53.

4. Homer E. Newell, Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science, NASA SP-4211 (Washington, 1980), pp. 212-13.

5. Hall, Lunar Impact, p. 15.

6. Ibid., pp. 5, 17; Clayton R. Koppes, JPL and the American Space Program: A History of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1982), pp. 99-100.

7. Hall, Lunar Impact, pp. 18, 20-24.

8. Ibid., p. 38.

9. NASA, Fifth Semiannual Report to Congress, October 1, 1960, Through June 30, 1961 (Washington, 1962), pp. 49-50.

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