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National Aeronautics and Space Administration


Unmanned Space Project Management

Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter


Chapter 2 - Chronology




The Surveyor program was an effort to explore the Moon with an automated, soft-landing spacecraft equipped to respond to commands from the Earth and transmit scientific and engineering data from the lunar surface. In addition to mastering the difficult techniques of making a soft landing, the overall objectives eventually included the acquisition of basic data to support the Apollo program and the performance of operations designed to contribute new scientific information about the Moon.

NASA Headquarters assigned the Surveyor program to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena in the spring of 1960. JPL had then been affiliated with NASA only a little more than a year, having been transferred to the space agency from the Department of the Army. Unlike NASA field centers, JPL was brought into association with NASA by means of a NASA contract with Caltech that included what came to be called a "mutuality clause" regarding the scope of the laboratory's activities.

During its 14-year relationship with the Department of the Army, JPL had concentrated on technical undertakings that were conducted largely in-house. It had managed two Army missile projects by means of industrial contracting, but nothing on the scale of Surveyor; and Head-quarters favored contracting with industry for the development of the Surveyor spacecraft system. JPL conducted a study in 1960 to establish the overall objectives, feasibility, and design constraints applicable to the Surveyor mission. Pursuant to this study, JPL initiated requests from a large segment of industry with the intent of contracting for several funded preliminary design studies. A Source Evaluation Board was established to review these studies and select a spacecraft systems contractor. The JPL board recommended the selection of Hughes Aircraft Co. of Los Angeles, and NASA Headquarters concurred in this selection after its own review.

All through the first half of the Surveyor program, JPL was deeply involved in the Ranger project to launch a series of spacecraft for hard landings on the lunar surface. Overcoming problems that led to a series of failures in that project absorbed a large share of JPL's energies and resources. Eventually NASA Headquarters became deeply involved in Ranger through review boards and other efforts to instill engineering discipline in JPL. For JPL senior management, Surveyor created a troublesome conflict of priorities. Like NASA field centers, JPL operated under rigid manpower ceilings imposed by Headquarters. Even after NASA Headquarters had directed JPL to accord a high-priority status to Surveyor, the Laboratory continued to allocate limited manpower and support to the program. The senior administration of NASA Headquarters and the principal managers of the Office of Space Science and Applica-tions, responsible for unmanned spaceflights including Surveyor, found it extremely difficult to deal with senior representatives of Caltech and JPL, who were considered unresponsive to Washington's directions.

Particularly critical to Surveyor was the need for concurrent innovation in the development of a new launch vehicle and a new spacecraft incorporating a highly sophisticated terminal descent guidance system. NASA consciously made Surveyor totally dependent on a highly advanced, yet-to be-developed launch vehicle, the Atlas/Centaur, whose management was transferred to the space agency from the Department of Defense. Military and space mission requirements differed, and the Surveyor spacecraft would be Earth-bound if Centaur did not meet its performance requirements. When an open-ended project, such as Surveyor, was assigned to an open-ended launch vehicle, troubles were created for both. Centaur's development was greatly complicated by performance requirements on the booster that were incompatible with each other. From the viewpoint of the space program as a whole, the gamble paid off,. but it greatly complicated and hindered development of Surveyor.

For the first half of the Surveyor program, serious doubts persisted about when, if ever, the Centaur booster would be ready to fly. Estimates of the weight-lifting capability of the launch vehicle fluctuated greatly, and mostly downward, despite pressures to push the spacecraft weight upward. The design of the Surveyor spacecraft and its payload had to be constantly modified. As it turned out, most of the Centaur weight lifting projections were too conservative, and much of the time and expense involved in spacecraft weight reduction programs could have been avoided.

Surveyor provided a forcing mechanism for the development of Centaur as part of the space agency's long-range launch vehicle program. Centaur has since proved a highly valuable propulsion vehicle for a number of U.S. space vehicles. However, this technique for forcing innovation stretched out timetables and increased expenditures for Surveyor.

Both the Surveyor and Centaur projects encountered technical and managerial problems of sufficient magnitude to become the subject of extensive congressional hearings. Each was subject to an exceptional degree of Headquarters intervention and involvement of representatives of senior management in day-to-day management of the project.

After beginning as an ambitious long-range science-oriented program, Surveyor was curtailed in the fall of 1964 to a discrete Apollo-support project. The first Surveyor spacecraft was launched on May 30, 1966. It made the first U.S. soft landing on the Moon and sent back photographs and other data from the lunar surface. Seven Surveyor spacecraft were launched over an 18-month period. Five successfully landed and returned engineering and scientific data essential for the first manned landing.



The Lunar Orbiter project was an element of NASA's Lunar and Planetary Program and was focused on the requirements for Apollo from its inception. Along with the Surveyor assignment, NASA had originally requested JPL to explore the possibility of a dual mission project in which the Surveyor soft-landing vehicle and an orbiter would both use the Atlas/Centaur launch vehicle. At that time JPL's resources were so fully committed to Ranger, Surveyor, and in-house activity that it was unable to devote a great deal of time to an orbiter. Nevertheless, the orbiter mission studies conducted by JPL contributed significantly to the development of concepts that were ultimately adopted in the Lunar Orbiter design.

Senior management at NASA Headquarters debated at length whether an agency center rather than JPL should be assigned responsibility for management of a lunar project and the development of the specialized competence entailed. Recognizing that some duplication might be necessary and desirable, Headquarters authorized Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., to investigate the feasibility of its undertaking a possible assignment from NASA of a major flight project of the scope of Lunar Orbiter. LaRC management deliberated carefully and concluded that it would be able to handle such a mission. The Center was very receptive to the challenge of its first spaceflight project. The objective was to carry out a series of five launches of lunar-orbiting spacecraft to be propelled not by the Atlas/Centaur but by the smaller and proven Atlas/Agena launch vehicle. The major goal was to photograph potential landing sites for Apollo.

The source evaluation process for Lunar Orbiter led to selection of a design proposed by The Boeing Co. of Seattle, Wash. Although this choice was criticized because it involved a relatively complex and costly camera and spacecraft configuration, NASA Headquarters was convinced that the Boeing design was the one that would best assure fulfillment of the mission. The selection was justified in the ultimate performance of the Lunar Orbiter spacecraft.

The first of the five successful Lunar Orbiters was launched in August 1966, only two months later than the original target date. All of the photographic requirements for Apollo were essentially satisfied in the first three Lunar Orbiter missions, and missions four and five were reoriented to acquire other photography desired by the scientific community.