Surveyor: The Study, Proposal, and Program Initiation—Jack Fisher

Shortly after the launch of Sputnik in October 1957 William Pickering, Director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), proposed that the US meet the Russian challenge by sending spacecraft to the moon. In early 1958 responsibility for the US space program was assigned to DoD’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) and they embarked on a lunar program called Pioneer with vehicles designed by Space Technology Lab and JPL. Five Pioneer missions were attempted during 1958-59 the most successful of which passed by the moon at a distance of 60000 km. These Pioneer flights however, returned important information about the Van Allen radiation belts.

In February 1959 NASA established a working group on lunar exploration that included representation from NASA, JPL, Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA), Caltech, and the University of California. This group was given the responsibility to develop a lunar exploration program that was to include circumlunar vehicles, hard lunar impacts, close lunar satellites, and instrumented soft lunar landings. These missions were to be based upon use of Saturn booster with various upper stages.

On April 30, 1959 JPL submitted to NASA a five-year plan for space exploration that included missions to Venus, Mars, and the Moon. The plan for lunar exploration included an orbiter, a hard landing mission and a soft landing mission scheduled for June, 1963. Despite the inclusion of lunar missions in this plan, JPL tended to favor planetary exploration for the reason that the opportunities for planetary missions occur less frequently—every 19 months for Venus and 25 months for Mars—whereas lunar mission opportunities occur every month. JPL’s plan called for 3-4 flights per year and included consideration of flight mechanics, navigation, guidance, spacecraft design and science instrumentation.

NASA headquarters, however, in reaction to Russia’s Luna missions, strongly favored a program of lunar exploration. In December 1959 NASA adopted the Air Force’s Atlas-Agena B for all initial space missions and assigned to JPL five lunar and two planetary missions using this launch vehicle. The five lunar missions, later expanded to nine, became known as Ranger. The Ranger mission was defined as an unbraked lunar impact with TV pictures transmitted back to Earth prior to impact. Nine Ranger missions were flown from 1961 to 1965 with the last three achieving all mission objectives.

On February 1, 1960 ABMA completed a lunar exploration report under contract to NASA. The 400-page report dealt with guidance, control, flight mechanics, vehicle design, and prospective payloads.

It’s difficult, and almost impossible, to gather much information regarding the beginnings of Hughes Surveyor program. In January 1960 NASA provided a ten-year plan that called for controlled unmanned landings on the moon in 1963-64. In early 1960 they generated requirements for the study of a lunar soft-lander to be known as Surveyor. Mission management responsibility was given to the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL). In NASA terminology this was to be a program, i. e. more than one mission as it was to include an orbiter eventually as well as the lander. Over JPL’s objection the winner of the final contract would be a prime contractor with overall responsibility for design of the lander as well as mission design and mission operations. In NASA’s judgment JPL had their hands full at this time with Ranger and Mariner missions.

The JPL developed requirements for a combined study/proposal that were documented in the three volumes of Technical Memorandum 33-13. Volume 1 contained design study requirements for the spacecraft and mission, Volume 2 contained lunar trajectory characteristics and constraints, and Volume 3 described the intended science mission and the prospective science payload. The contracts to be awarded called for the design of the soft landing spacecraft and a proposal for the development of the spacecraft and the ensuing flight operations. Important constraints were the use the Atlas-Centaur launch vehicle with a capability of injecting 2500 pounds into a trans-lunar trajectory from Cape Canaveral, lunar arrival over the Goldstone tracking station with a prospective flight time of 66 hours. The ensuing contract was designated to be Cost Plus Fixed Fee and the first of seven launches was to be in April 1963. The study/proposal schedule called for a bidders briefing on May 13, 1960, study proposal submission on June 6, start of the study contract on July 15, proposal/study submission on December 15, and start of the development contract on April 1, 1961.

Thirty seven potential contractors submitted bids for this study. On July 9 NASA announced that study contracts were being awarded to Hughes, North American, McDonnell and Space Technology Lab (STL). The Hughes study/proposal team was located in a bullpen in the Culver City facility. The proposal manager was Leo Stoolman assisted by Bob Sears.  Other members the team included John Bozajian, Jim Cloud, Shel Shallon, Perry Ackerman, Fred Hummel, Mal Meredith, John Bozajian, Tom Van Horne, Ken Beall, Neal Hertzman, and Max Mason.

Bob Roney played a crucial role in the overall definition of the spacecraft and mission and provided Fred Hummel with significant assistance in the design of the terminal descent. John Bozajian was responsible for the structural design and landing system including the legs, foot pads, and crushable pads.  Jim Cloud and and Mal Meredith did the mission analysis and Ken Beall and Tom Van Horne provided systems engineering support.

On January 19, 1961 a NASA press release announced that Hughes Aircraft had been selected to build Surveyor. Fred Hummel noted that after the award JPL provided Hughes with copies of the competitor’s proposals. In his opinion, the Hughes and STL proposals were significantly better than the others with the primary difference being STL’s digital implementation of the terminal descent logic while Hughes relied upon an analog implementation.

The award announcement occurred just one day before the inauguration of John Kennedy as president of the US. These two events didn’t seem related at the time, but on May 25, 1961 Kennedy announced that we would send a man to the moon in this decade. And later, on July 17, 1962, NASA defined the landing zone for the Apollo missions and announced that the Ranger and Surveyor missions would support Apollo. This completely changed the character of the Surveyor mission away from scientific exploration to that of being a precursor for Apollo.

The Surveyor project was organized as a laboratory in the newly formed Space Systems Division with Leo Stoolman as the manager with Bob Sears as his assistant. Jim Cloud was named as the manager of Systems Analysis and Dick Cheng, formerly a member of STL’s Surveyor proposal team, joined the Hughes Surveyor team as Jim’s assistant.

The negotiated development plan for the Surveyor spacecraft and mission was finalized on August 7, 1961. The negotiated cost for seven spacecraft was $67M. The Atlas-Centaur was required to inject a payload of 2500 pounds into a trans-lunar trajectory and the science payload of approximately 340 pounds was yet to be defined by JPL.  The first launch was scheduled for August 1963.

The first two years of the Hughes Surveyor program were quite eventful. Subcontracts were let for the solid propellant retro motor with the Elkton Division of Thiokol, for the vernier propulsion thrusters with the Reaction Motors Division of Thiokol, and for the Radar Altimeter and Doppler Velocity Sensor with Ryan Electronics and the Hughes Santa Barbara Research Center was chosen to provide the Canopus sensor.

With difficulties in the development of the Centaur stage it became necessary to delay the first launch to August 1964. Furthermore, in the Spring of 1962 NASA’s Marshall Spaceflight Center (MSFC), formerly ABMA, now responsible for Centaur development, informed JPL that the Centaur could not provide the required 2500-pound payload capability. The reduced payload capability of 2100 pounds required a substantial redesign of the Surveyor spacecraft. This was accomplished with a significant reduction in the science payload and the attendant reduction in propellant weight. The spacecraft for the first five missions, now designated as A-21, would carry a reduced engineering payload while the remaining two missions, designated as A-25, would carry the full payload.

In November 1962 Leo Stoolman displayed the Surveyor reduced payload design at a meeting of the American Rocket Society in Los Angeles.  He told the gathering that the payload redesign was due to the reduced capability of the Centaur and the need to support the Apollo manned lunar landing mission.

With the transfer of Centaur program responsibility from MSFC to NASA’s Lewis Research Center in September 1962 came a decision to not provide the restart capability required for the parking orbit mission mode until all other design issues had been successfully settled. The parking orbit mode provided a great deal of mission flexibility with possible launch opportunities every month. The lack of restart capability necessitated a direct ascent mission mode that was possible only when the moon’s position (declination) was in the southern hemisphere. Mission opportunities were further restricted by lunar lighting constraints that favored launching in the summer months. Although the direct ascent injection was more restrictive in determining launch opportunities favorable lunar geometry in the mid to late 1960s provided suitable Surveyor mission opportunities.


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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.