Success: The Surveyor Missions

The Surveyor I spacecraft was launched from the Kennedy Space Center at 14:41 GMT on May 30, 1966 by the Atlas Centaur (AC-10) using the direct ascent single burn mode for

Launch of Surveyor I, May 30, 1966

Centaur. It soft landed on the lunar surface at 6:17 GMT on June 2. Some thought it was miraculous that Surveyor succeeded on its first attempt. Bob Roderick, the Hughes project manager, said when asked prior to launch what were the chances of success, “A thousand to one.” And the mission was carried on live national television. When the first picture of the lunar surface and one of the footpads appeared some minutes after touchdown it was there on your living room TV. The same picture lingered for such a long time that jokes were made that the operations crew was so surprised at the successful landing that they had no further procedures available.

Needless to say this mission was a huge success. Over 11,000 pictures were returned from the moon and it was definitely proved that objects landing on the moon would not sink into many feet of lunar dust as some scientists had predicted. The spacecraft survived the lunar night and came alive with the rising sun on July 6 and returned even more pictures.

The Shadow of Surveyor I At the End of the First Lunar Day

It came to light after the soft landing that an American flag had been carried to the moon by Surveyor I. It had been purchased by Shel Shallon, Hughes Surveyor project office staff, from a SavOn drug store in Los Angeles for 23 cents.  After carefully cleaning the flag, Shel had a technician in Florida place it in a structural member of the spacecraft. This caused some concerns with NASA and JPL officials, but since the mission was successful, this was not a major issue.

In an apt follow up to the successful Surveyor I mission, Pat Hyland, Hughes vice president, placed a telephone call to Bob Seamans, NASA Deputy Administrator, and asked him, “Have you got any more programs that you want us to screw up?”

The Surveyor 2 spacecraft was launched from the Kennedy Space Center at 12:32 GMT on September 20, 1966 by the Atlas Centaur (AC-7) using the direct ascent single burn mode for Centaur. The mission was terminated when as a result of a vernier engine failure during the midcourse maneuver the spacecraft tumbled out of control.

The Surveyor III spacecraft was launched on at 7:05 GMT on April 17, 1967 by the Atlas Centaur (AC-12) using the parking orbit mode for the first time in an operational mission. This mode requires a Centaur restart in orbit. A soft landing was achieved at 00:04 GMT on April 20, 1967. The vernier engines did not shut off at touchdown and continued in operation until shut down by ground command. Subsequently the spacecraft lifted off twice before finally coming to rest. The landing occurred on a 12.5 degree slope inside a 200 meter crater. An additional payload of a soil mechanics surface sampler that allowed digging, picking and handling of lunar soil was included. The spacecraft operated through the first lunar day, experiencing a total eclipse of the sun by the earth and returning 6300 pictures.

Surveyor 4 was launched from the Kennedy Space Center at 11:53 GMT on July 14, 1967 by the Atlas Centaur (AC-11) using the Centaur direct ascent single burn mode. Contact was lost with the spacecraft just prior to burn out of the solid rocket motor and could not be recovered.

Surveyor V was launched at 07:57 GMT on September 8, 1967 by the Atlas-Centaur (AC-13) using the parking orbit injection mode that required a Centaur main engine restart after a 7-minute coast period. A significant problem developed during the transit phase when it was discovered that the helium tank that provides pressurization for the vernier propulsion system had developed a leak. A significant effort by the mission operations crew developed a workaround plan that resolved the problem—see Surveyor V Odyssey. As a result of this effort the spacecraft soft-landed on the lunar surface at 00:46 GMT on 9/11/67 at the planned landing site. About two days after landing the vernier engines were fired briefly (0.55 seconds) to observe erosion effects on the lunar surface at the request of the Apollo program office. An alpha scattering instrument provided data for the chemical analysis of the lunar surface material. The spacecraft returned 19000 pictures. During the second lunar day the spacecraft returned another 1000 pictures. Surveyor did not respond to any commands on the third lunar day but was reawakened on the fourth lunar day setting a record by surviving three lunar nights.

Surveyor VI was launched at 07:39 GMT on November 7,1967 by the Atlas Centaur (AC-14) using the parking orbit ascent mode. Touchdown occurred at 01:01 GMT on November 10, 1967. The highlight of this mission was the performance of a lunar hop. The vernier rocket engines were restarted and fired for 2.5 seconds. This lifted the spacecraft 12 feet off the surface and moved it laterally 8 feet. The Surveyor VI television camera provided the best quality pictures and returned over 30000 pictures. The alpha scattering instrument was operated extensively and provided chemical analysis of the lunar surface material. The spacecraft survived the lunar night, but could not sustain any further operations.

Surveyor VII was launched at 6:30 GMT on January 7, 1968 by the Atlas Centaur (AC-15) using the parking orbit ascent mode. Touchdown occurred at 1:05 GMT on January 10, 1968. The prior Surveyor landing sites were all in the area being considered for Apollo mission landings near the lunar equator. The landing site selected for Surveyor VII, shown below, was in the lunar highlands at 41 degrees south latitude and was of greater interest to the scientific community.Both a alpha scattering instrument and a soil mechanics surface sampler were carried on this mission. The surface sampler was used to overcome an alpha scattering deployment problem and to move the instrument on the lunar surface. The spacecraft returned 21000 pictures and survived the first lunar night and continued operations until February 20.

Apollo 12 with astronauts Pete Conrad and Alan Bean landed at the Surveyor 3 landing site and recovered pieces of that spacecraft on November 19-20, 1969.

Pete Conrad With Surveyor III

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About Jack Fisher

Jack was a systems engineer at Hughes from 1961 to 1992. He contributed to various programs including Surveyor, Pioneer Venus, Galileo, Intelsat VI and innumerable proposals. He was the manager of of the Spacecraft Systems Engineering Lab until his retirement. Upon retirement Jack taught systems engineering at a number of national and international venues.