|The derelict Surveyor 3 lander (left) became a pin-point landing target for Apollo 12 in November 1969. Image credit: NASA.|
On 2 December 1963, high-level NASA Lunar and Planetary Program staffers briefed NASA Administrator James Webb, Deputy Administrator Hugh Dryden, and Associate Administrator Robert Seamans. Their aim: to shift NASA's robotic program priorities toward science.
In his introductory presentation, Lunar and Planetary Program Director Oran Nicks solicited funding to enhance the four extant programs with new science-focused missions. He also sought funding to initiate the new Voyager Mars/Venus program.
Nicks reminded Webb, Dryden, and Seamans that Mariner II had scored an impressive first by flying past Venus in December 1962. He noted that, one year after achieving world's first successful planetary flyby, NASA's entire approved planetary program consisted of just two Mars flybys (Mariners III and IV, set for launch in November 1964). Mariner missions planned after 1964 were, he stressed, "not firm." He blamed funding cuts and persistent problems with the finicky cryogenic liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen Centaur upper stage for this surprising failure to follow up on Mariner II's success. Nicks then turned the briefing over to his Lunar and Planetary Program managers.
By the time Ranger Program Manager N. William Cunningham stood before Webb, Dryden, and Seamans, Rangers I through V had failed. Ranger I (launched 23 August 1961) and Ranger II (launched 18 November 1961), "Block I" vehicles meant to gather data on micrometeoroids, radiation, solar plasma, and magnetic fields in high elliptical Earth orbit, had fallen victim to Atlas-Agena B rocket malfunctions, as had Ranger III (launched 26 January 1962), a Block II spacecraft meant to rough-land on the Moon a spherical balsa-wood capsule bearing a seismometer. Ranger IV (launched 23 April 1962) and Ranger V (launched 18 October 1962), also Block IIs, had suffered electrical failures.
Four Block IIIs (Rangers VI through IX) were expected to photograph the moon by August 1964, then six Block Vs (Rangers X through XV) would fly in 1965-1967. Cunningham noted that NASA planned to spend $92.5 million on Block V Rangers. Much like the Block IIs, Block V Rangers would attempt to rough-land capsules containing instruments, including possibly a TV system for beaming to Earth images from the Moon's stark surface. Cunningham called the Block Vs "the only backup" the U.S. had in place for the Surveyor Program, then urged Webb and his lieutenants to add $50 million to the Block V Ranger development budget.
Milwitzky proposed that Surveyor's science payload be restored by adding the corrosive element fluorine to the Atlas rocket's liquid oxygen propellant. He urged Webb, Dryden, and Seamans to spend $40 million in 1964-1966 to develop this energetic oxidizer mix for the Atlas.
If they agreed to beef up the Atlas, then the first advanced science-focused Surveyor could fly in 1967. A typical advanced Surveyor lander might include a Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator to provide its instruments with long-term electricity, a drill for subsurface sample collection, on board sample analysis gear, a geophysical probe that could be lowered down the drill bore hole, a seismometer, a mast-mounted TV system for imaging a large area around the lander in stereo, and a small rover for exploring the landing site and emplacing explosive seismic experiment packages a safe distance away from the lander.
Milwitzky ended his presentation by proposing that NASA increase the number of planned Surveyor missions from 17 to 29. He estimated that the 17-mission program would cost $425.5 million; adding 12 more missions would cost an additional $352 million.
Milwitzky then handed off to Lee Scherer, Lunar Orbiter Program Manager. Scherer began his presentation by reminding Webb and his deputies that Lunar Orbiter missions 1 through 5 had been approved for 1966-1967, and that Lunar Orbiters 6 through 10, while not yet formally approved, were planned for 1967-1968.
Lunar Orbiter spacecraft would, Scherer said, aim "to obtain, initially, scientific data about the [M]oon and its environment of special importance to the Apollo mission." The approved Lunar Orbiters were intended mainly to photograph areas of the lunar surface accessible to Apollo spacecraft (that is, close to the equator on the Nearside, the lunar hemisphere that forever faces Earth).
Scherer proposed that NASA fly five science-oriented Lunar Orbiters in 1968-1969. These might enter orbits inclined to the lunar equator, enabling them to pass over scientifically interesting surface features beyond the equatorial Apollo landing zone. They might also enter lunar polar orbit for whole-Moon mapping. Gamma-ray spectrometers and infrared sensors might be used to map lunar mineralogy. Scherer also proposed a mission dedicated to exploring Moon/Sun plasma interactions and any lunar magnetic field that might exist. Lunar Orbiters 1 through 10 would cost $198 million; Scherer estimated that adding Lunar Orbiters 11 through 15 would boost the program's cost by $95 million.
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, first proposed the ambitious Voyager Mars/Venus robotic spacecraft series in 1960. In December 1963, Voyager was not yet an approved NASA program, though studies continued at JPL and NASA Headquarters. According to Donald Hearth, the Lunar and Planetary Program Office staffer responsible for Voyager, NASA had allotted $7.1 million for Voyager studies in 1962-1963. Of this, all but $1.3 million had been shifted to cover funding shortfalls in other programs.
Hearth told Webb, Dryden, and Seamans that the Voyager 1969 Mars lander would carry an impressive suite of 38 science instruments, including two TV cameras, a sample-collection drill, biology detectors, a microscope, a seismometer, a microphone, and meteorology sensors. Voyager 1969 Mars orbiter instruments would include multicolor stereo TV cameras, an infrared spectrometer for determining surface composition over wide areas, a magnetometer for charting the martian magnetic field, a cosmic dust detector, and a solar X-ray detector.
Though more capable than any other U.S. lunar or planetary spacecraft, the Saturn IB/Centaur-launched Voyagers would pale next to planned Saturn V-launched Advanced Voyagers. Hearth reported that the Saturn V rocket could launch to Mars a 3100-pound orbiter and one or more direct-entry landers weighing a total of 33,000 pounds.
These "large lander laboratories" might include rovers, balloons, and hovercraft to enable exploration beyond their landing sites. Alternately, the Advanced Voyager orbiter might carry a large retro stage that would enable it to retain its lander until after it achieved Mars orbit. Lander descent from Mars orbit would improve landing accuracy, Hearth explained.
Hearth estimated that the Voyager Program would cost $2.9 billion over 11 years. Assuming timely approval, NASA could launch Voyager test flights in 1967 and 1968, Voyager Mars missions in 1969, 1971, and 1973, Voyager Venus missions in 1970 and 1972, and Advanced Voyager Mars missions in 1973 and 1975.
Within a week of the 2 December 1963 briefing, James Webb informed Oran Nicks that NASA could not afford to expand its robotic lunar and planetary programs in support of science. In fact, by 13 December, when NASA Associate Administrator for Space Sciences and Applications Homer Newell announced that the Block V Ranger development was cancelled, it had become clear that NASA would cut back its robotic lunar programs, sharply limiting opportunities for science-focused missions. Ranger, Surveyor, and Lunar Orbiter became victims of their own success; almost as soon as they proved themselves to be capable scientific exploration machines by providing the data Apollo engineers and planners needed, NASA top brass opted to end them and move on.
In all, scientists were granted just four robotic missions specifically for scientific lunar exploration. Though Ranger VI was an embarrassing failure, Ranger VII and Ranger VIII succeeded, and the program concluded with the successful science-focused Ranger IX mission to Alphonsus crater in March 1965. All were Block III spacecraft.
Five Lunar Orbiters mapped the Moon between August 1966 and January 1968. Lunar Orbiters 4 and 5 were science-focused missions in a near-polar lunar orbits. Surveyor ended with its seventh flight, a science-focused mission to a site just north of the bright ray crater Tycho in January 1968.
After Apollo, NASA received data from instruments left behind on the Moon by the Apollo astronauts. These were turned off in September 1977. The U.S. civilian space agency then largely abandoned the Moon, scene of its greatest triumph, for more than 20 years.
Voyager became an official NASA program in 1965, just in time to see its design scrapped and its estimated cost nearly doubled. Mariner IV was the culprit: it revealed that the planet's atmosphere was 10 times thinner than expected. Because of this, Voyager would need heavy landing rockets in addition to parachutes.
The star-crossed program lingered on until August 1967, when Congress refused to fund its continued development. NASA then proposed a cut-price Mariner-derived Mars landing program, called Viking, which received approval in 1968 from a Congress increasingly aware of Soviet plans to explore the Solar System with automated rovers and sample-returners. Two Viking orbiter-lander pairs explored Mars beginning in 1976. The name Voyager was subsequently resurrected for twin Mariner-derived outer planets flyby spacecraft — originally named Mariner Jupiter-Saturn — which departed Earth in 1977.
"Briefing for the Administrator on Possible Expansion of Lunar and Planetary Programs," NASA Headquarters, 2 December 1963.
Astronautics and Aeronautics, 1963, NASA SP-4004, 1964, p. 477.
Lunar Impact: A History of Project Ranger, NASA SP-4210, R. Cargill Hall, NASA, 1977.
The Voyage of Mariner 10: Mission to Venus and Mercury, NASA SP-424, James A Dunne & Eric Burgess, NASA, 1978.
On Mars: Exploration of the Red Planet, 1958-1978, NASA SP-4212, Edward Clinton Ezell & Linda Neuman Ezell, NASA, 1984.
Deep Space Chronicle: A Chronology of Deep Space and Planetary Probes 1958-2000, NASA SP-2002-4524, Monographs in Aerospace History Number 24, Asif A. Siddiqi, 2002, pp. 88-90, 105-106, 110-112.
Voyager: The Interstellar Mission (http://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/ — accessed 19 November 2016).
On the Moons of Mighty Jupiter (1970)
The Challenge of the Planets, Part Three: Gravity
A 1974 Plan for a Slow Flyby of Comet Encke
Missions to Comet d'Arrest & Asteroid Eros in the 1970s (1966)
If an Apollo Lunar Module Crashed on the Moon, Could NASA Investigate the Cause? (1967)