The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews
 

 
book covers

Review: Surveyor Lunar Exploration Program: The Official Mission Reports

Surveyor Lunar Exploration Program: The Official Mission Reports
Robert Godwin, editor
Apogee Books, 2006
Softcover, with CD-ROM, 175 pages
ISBN 1-894959-65-5
US $17.95
(note: available only directly from the publisher)

NASA’s current plans for returning to the Moon include robotic precursor missions, such as the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to photograph the surface in high resolution, a lander, and possibly even a rover for exploring the dark craters near the potential landing site. This effort will be a smaller-scale version of the way the agency approached the Moon landings in the 1960s when NASA sent a fleet of robotic spacecraft to the Moon prior to the Apollo missions. These included Project Ranger, Lunar Orbiter, and Surveyor. NASA has produced program histories of both Ranger and Lunar Orbiter, but the most sophisticated and expensive program, Surveyor, does not have an official or independently produced history.

Surveyor Lunar Exploration Program: The Official Mission Reports is not a history of the overall program but a collection of NASA mission reports and other documents concerning the project. Nevertheless, it is a good overview of one of NASA’s most ambitious early robotic spacecraft.

The Surveyor program initially started out far more sophisticated than what NASA ultimately flew to the Moon. Surveyor predated the Apollo program and space scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory originally viewed Surveyor as the primary method for obtaining scientific data on the Moon. They therefore planned for a complex mission involving both an orbiter and a lander, and a suite of scientific experiments. But a number of factors forced NASA and the program’s scientific advocates to scale back these plans. A primary consideration was cost. Another was the overall sophistication of the mission and the spacecraft. But the most important factor was the Apollo program. Once Kennedy had approved the lunar landing goal, Surveyor was reduced from a scientific probe to a support spacecraft that would gather data necessary to conduct human landings. The humans would perform the majority of science on the Moon.

Despite this scaling back, Surveyor still proved to be a highly complex, expensive, and heavy spacecraft. It required the Centaur upper stage and in fact became the primary driver for development of the Atlas-Centaur launch vehicle. In retrospect, the problems that NASA experienced with the downscaled Surveyor highlight how unreal the earlier plans were.

Once Kennedy had approved the lunar landing goal, Surveyor was reduced from a scientific probe to a support spacecraft that would gather data necessary to conduct human landings. The humans would perform the majority of science on the Moon.

NASA flew seven Surveyor missions, with five successes. Surveyor 1 reached the Moon in June 1966, Surveyor 2 crashed into the Moon in October 1966, Surveyor 3 landed successfully in April 1967, Surveyor 4 failed later that year, but was followed in September by Surveyor 5. Surveyor 6 landed successfully in November 1967, and Surveyor 7 in January 1968. The missions demonstrated that the lunar surface was harder and less dusty than some earlier models had predicted. Although virtually nobody in the scientific community expected the Moon to be covered by a thick layer of dust that would swallow a spacecraft whole, there was a possibility that dust on the Moon would be so thick that it could obscure visibility or otherwise interfere with a landing. The Surveyor missions therefore provided solid data on the composition of the lunar surface.

The primary instrument on Surveyor was its camera, which was capable of panning around the spacecraft and also elevating. The first spacecraft had over 100 engineering sensors, including resistance thermometers, voltage sensors, strain gages, accelerometers, and other devices. The fact that these were engineering sensors and not scientific sensors highlights the spacecraft’s mission: prove that it was possible to make a safe soft landing on the Moon. But some in the scientific community had hoped that later missions would have a greater scientific content than they did. In actuality, the only instruments added were a surface scoop that could dig a trench and expose underlying soil to the camera, and an alpha scattering experiment used to examine the chemical composition of the soil.

The book is 169 pages plus short appendices and an index. The first third consists primarily of press releases summarizing each mission, including the spacecraft and the planned landing site. This is followed by several short papers summarizing the engineering and scientific results from the missions, including an analysis of the Surveyor 3 equipment returned by the Apollo 12 crew and a discussion of the contamination found on the camera. Although initially scientists thought that biological contamination had been carried to the Moon and had survived there for years until returned to Earth, later the scientific consensus shifted and scientists suspected that the contamination probably occurred on Earth during the examination. That hypothesis is not discussed in this book, however.

An interesting section concerns proposed follow-on missions to the Block I Surveyor configuration. The spacecraft manufacturer, Hughes, proposed Block II and Block III versions with more scientific instruments. The Block III version in particular would be a long-duration mission equipped with multiple solar panels and even a radioisotope thermoelectric generator. It could operate on the lunar far side. Its scientific instrument suite could consist of seismometers, chromatographs, spectrometers and micrometeoroid detectors. One ambitious proposal was for a robotic lunar rover. The Block II and III spacecraft could extend scientific observations to the entire Moon. But Apollo was already consuming huge amounts of money, and it was hard for scientists to justify continued robotic missions to the Moon. In fact, after the initial batch of Lunar Orbiter and Surveyor missions, robotic exploration of the Moon stopped for over two decades.

Like many of Apogee’s books, this one includes a CD-ROM. The CD contains a number of scanned documents, including the analysis of Surveyor 3 parts returned by Apollo 12 and Surveyor mission reports from flights 1, 2 and 3, as well as an overall Surveyor program results document. There is also a Surveyor slide show that was rather disappointing. It consists of a lot of interesting color and black and white photographs from the Surveyor program, including many preflight construction and integration photos as well as some amusing beauty shot artwork. However, they are all barely larger than thumbnail size and in an MPG1 file format that runs in a small viewing window. The slideshow is primarily a tease, and one wishes that the photos were actually available as high-quality scanned images instead. Of course, the work involved in producing such a digital photo archive is substantial, but the slideshow is in some ways annoying for promising more than it delivers.

The Block II and III spacecraft could extend scientific observations to the entire Moon. But Apollo was already consuming huge amounts of money, and it was hard for scientists to justify continued robotic missions to the Moon.

Apogee Books is increasingly switching to a “print on demand” approach for its titles, meaning that rather than printing hundreds or thousands of copies and distributing them to bookstores like Borders and Barnes and Noble and selling them through Amazon.com, the company will print only dozens at a time and sell them directly through their website. Although less convenient for consumers (it will not result in the substantial discounts one can obtain through Amazon), it does mean that more obscure space topics are likely to remain available to interested readers. Surveyor: Lunar Exploration Program: The Official Mission Reports is a good buy for $17.95.

A lot of history remains to be written about Surveyor, but it primarily centers not on the missions and their results, but on the engineering and programmatic challenges that NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Hughes faced developing the spacecraft. Until somebody writes that book, this is a good buy for anybody interested in the early history of robotic exploration of the Moon.


Home