The Story of Surveyor I—Jack Fisher

This past week saw on Tuesday, June 2, the 49th anniversary of the landing on the moon of Surveyor I. This was a momentous milestone in the history of the space achievements of the Hughes Aircraft Company. Note: the landing occurred at 11:17 PM PDT on June 1; this however was 7:17 AM GMT so that the official landing date is June 2. The program had been a troubled one with cost overruns, test failures, Centaur development problems and significant issues at Hughes, JPL and General Dynamics. The odds against a successful mission seemed enormous. In fact, Bob Roderick, the Hughes program manager, when queried by the press was quoted as saying the odds were 1000 to one against a successful landing. This appeared in many newspapers much to the consternation of Hughes management. And the mission was being broadcast live on TV so that those interested in the space program were glued to their TVs, not only in the U. S. but also in Europe.

There are conflicting accounts of what transpired before, during, and after the landing including how the Hughes Surveyor contract was modified immediately prior to the launch. Here are several for your enjoyment. Add your own memories if you were a part of the Surveyor team.

Robert Seamans in his autobiography, Project Apollo: The Tough Decisions, published in 2005, relates his account of Surveyor I: “Keith Glennan’s last official act at NASA was to select Hughes Aircraft for the development of Surveyor. Initially conceived for unmanned exploration, the craft had become essential to accom- plishing the lunar landing. But progress at Hughes was slow and a matter of deepening concern. It was decided that I should bait the bear and visit Pat Hyland, Hughes’ chief executive officer.

In early 1966, I invited him to breakfast at a hotel near the Los Angeles International Airport. I came armed with two alternatives. One was a contract amendment that provided an incentive fee for Hughes. If they achieved a successful lunar landing prior to a given date, there was a bonus, and if there was a delay, there was a penalty that was increasingly stiff as the weeks increased. I also had a letter that laid out, in detail, specific errors in omission and commission by Hughes in the management of the Surveyor program. After pleasantries and a plate of scrambled eggs, I showed Pat the letter and the contract amendment and asked him which he’d like to receive (or like least to receive). He said he’d be happy to sign the contract document.

I was at Mission Control in Houston for the launching of Gemini 9. When the Agena failed, Gemini 9’s launch was scrubbed because Agena would not be available for rendezvous and docking. So I headed for JPL in Pasadena, California.

In the early morning (2:00 a.m.) of 2 June 1966, I was seated on the balcony of Mission Control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, anticipating the landing of Surveyor. Pat Hyland was several rows behind. The atmosphere was palpable. Surveyor appeared healthy, responding correctly to instructions. Finally it made its landing, to great cheering; then it took the first photograph from the Moon, inspiring protracted cheering. And I heard Pat say over the din, “How’s that for a crippled program?” And at last, we had the answer from the returning photographs. There was dust on the lunar surface, perhaps an inch deep. It appeared that the lunar surface would support a manned lunar landing.

Surveyor’s 850-pound weight, was lifted into Earth’s orbit by an Atlas-Agena. There were two more lunar landings, each in a designated area. The data from Surveyor were essential to the design of the Apollo lander, challenging to geophysicists, and awe-inspiring to the public.” (Note there are several errors in this paragraph: The Surveyor weight at launch was 2194 pounds, the weight at landing was 652 pounds, the launch vehicle was the Atlas-Centaur and there were four more Surveyor landings on the moon of the six remaining missions.)

Erasmus H. Kolman in a NASA funded study entitled Unmanned Space Project Management: Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter Source published as NASA SP-4901 in 1972 relates that:  “The Surveyor spacecraft systems contract was awarded on the basis of a source evaluation by JPL, and JPL negotiated the contract with Hughes. The contract was written as the cost-plus-fixed-fee (CPFF) type, and was converted to an incentive basis quite late in the program-on the day before the launch of the first Surveyor spacecraft. JPL’s administration of the CPFF contract failed to keep pace with the many change orders and modifications, and fell far behind in its accounting of the financial status of the project. About a year of intensive work in the Surveyor contract office was needed to upgrade contract records. At about the same time, JPL, in response to Headquarters direction, began efforts to persuade Hughes to convert to an incentive contract. Although Hughes at first resisted, strong Headquarters insistence induced Hughes management to accept the new contract. When the project was completed, the company earned fees totaling several million dollars more than their minimal expectations under the CPFF contract.”

L. A. Hyland’s autobiography, “Call Me Pat,” published in 1993 covers the Surveyor program in just several pages. He mentions that Alan Puckett conducted the contract negotiations that were concluded just minutes before the touchdown of Surveyor 1. At this time Hyland was in the visitor’s gallery watching the mission unfold. He speaks of being really concerned as the future of the company was in doubt.

Mr. Hyland does relate that a NASA official did make offensive criticisms of him, Hughes Aircraft and the companies technical capability. He vowed to call him after the first successful moon landing. He did call that person, but didn’t indicate the nature of their conversation.

Clayton R. Koppes’ book, “JPL and the American Space Program,” published in 1982, is a history of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory from the beginnings in 1936 through the Viking mission in 1976. Koppes, a professor of history at Oberlin College in Ohio, presents a well-documented account of the Surveyor contract modification that is different than the previous accounts. Encouraged by NASA Headquarters Caltech appointed retired Air Force General Alvin Luedecke as deputy director of JPL in August 1964 much to the consternation of William Pickering, JPL Director. General Luedecke assumed responsibility for Surveyor and took on the task of revising the out-of-date contract that had many unincorporated change orders against it. With the contract updated, General Luedecke turned his attention to converting the CPFF contract to an incentive contract. Hughes at first resisted but eventually Dr. Puckett became convinced that Hughes should take this risk. Luedecke flew to Houston shortly before the first Surveyor launch to confer with Edgar Cortright, director of space sciences and applications regarding last-minute contract details. The contract was sent to Puckett’s home for his signature early in the morning on day before the first Surveyor launch.

Surveyor First Photo

This is the historic first picture from the moon transmitted to earth by the Hughes Aircraft Company-built Surveyor I after a perfect soft-landing on the moon at 11:17 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time on June 1, 1966. The 200-scan line picture, showing various parts of the spacecraft, was transmitted to earth 35 minutes after Surveyor landed and before any camera adjustments were made. The exposure was set for the spacecraft itself so that the lunar surface appears dark. Later pictures, using a 600-scan line system, showed markedly improved detail. Easily identified in the photo are one of the three landing legs, its footpad (#3), an omni-directional antenna boom and, at lower right, the top of a helium container.FirstPhoto

The Remainder of the Mission

The landing took place about 57 hours into the lunar day (of about 14 earth days) and with 5 hours remaining of Goldstone tracking station visibility. The first 200 scan line picture transmitted was 35 minutes after landing. A total of 133 600 scan line pictures were transmitted during the first Goldstone pass and over 10000 pictures were received during the first lunar day. Surveyor I was dormant during the lunar night and was reactivated on July 6. The mission was terminated on July 14.

The Surveyor Reunion

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Surveyor I mission, a dinner affair was held at the Proud Bird restaurant on July 15, 1986. After dinner speakers included Bob Roney, Kermit Watkins (JPL), Howard Haglund (JPL), Bob Roderick, Shel Shallon, Leo Stoolman, Pat Hyland, and William Pickering, former JPL director. The ceremonies were video taped. Note: I had forgotten about this tape until I recently discovered it amongst a number of other Surveyor mementos.

Shel Shallon, Surveyor project scientist at Hughes, related the story of the American flag that was placed onboard Surveyor I. Shallon purchased the flag at a Savon drugstore on Sepulveda Blvd. immediately prior to his travel to Florida and about a week before the launch. The cost was 24 cents. Since there were spacecraft sterilization requirements he had the flag properly cleaned before a technician placed it within a structural tube on the vehicle. When the story surfaced after launch it became a sensation. And of course there were repercussions from NASA and JPL. Hughes was ordered not to do this again. Also Hughes was directed to purchase two identical flags and repeat the cleaning process so that the extent of possible contamination could be determined. Shallon expressed his opinion that the flag was probably the cleanest item on the spacecraft. One final note: Shallon was later contacted by Walgreen’s hoping that they provided the flag. He had to disappoint them.

Comment by Larry Nowak.

I was a member of the SPAC team at JPL the night Surveyor 1 landed. The team was responsible for monitoring spacecraft health and executing maneuvers generated by the FPAC team. The final descent was all automatic with thruster firing terminated at the sensed 14 foot mark. The spacecraft then free falls to the moon’s surface. A safe landing area was picked for the first landing, but no one knew exactly what the specific spot might be like. In fact a few nights before a scientist on national TV said it was going to land in soot and sink out of sight. To make his point he blew soot all over the announcer’s face, like the thrusters would do. If that was the case, the Apollo program would have to be discontinued. I know there was a large incentive to take a picture of the landing pods for this very reason. When the spacecraft landed, everyone was anxious for that first picture. It was an incredible long time before the camera got turned on. Having taken six test runs to successfully pass the solar thermal vacuum tests perhaps there were some who didn’t think it possible to complete this complex mission on the first try. When that first picture did come through there was this loud cheer to show that surface was more like beach sand and our design had worked flawlessly. With world wide attention, it was the highlight of my career to have participated in this spectacular program.

Comment by Blaine Shull:

Surveyor Memories:  Mr Hyland walking the factory after the landing with the broadest, happiest smile I ever saw on him.  He was certainly proud!  Even with his so-extensive career, this was a big, big deal for him.

Comment by Jim Peirce

I was at Goldstone for the first landing as a data analyst. We saw the image on the screen and took a Polaroid picture of it. All photos and negatives were sent to JPL. I went to Madrid for number two and back to Goldstone for number 3. For number 4 thru 7 I was at the Hartbeespoort station north of Johannesburg, South Africa.

Comment by Dick (C. R.) Johnson

Thanks for the illuminating post. I was not witting of Hyland’s acceptance of this “last minute” Surveyor contract amendment. Good for Mr Hyland and for HAC! That display of confidence in the technical & management integrity of this very challenging, first-of-a-kind program and the willingness to back that confidence with the acceptance of significant financial risk/reward is characteristic of Hughes in the company’s “Glory Days”.

I do remember the night of Surveyor I’s landing. Tony Iorillo & I were working (temporarily) in Building 110 on Century Blvd. We headed out the door together at ~9:00 PM and Tony suggested we have a late dinner at a local watering hole & watch the culmination of the Surveyor I saga. At the time we were both on the younger side of 30, working long hours and were only peripherally aware of the significance of this historic event. When the success of the mission became apparent, we raised our glasses, finished dinner and went home to our (sleeping) families.

Comment by Len Davids

Before a successful automated powered descent to the Lunar surface could be begin, we in Systems Engineering had to run several computer programs to generate the final required spacecraft commands. In the months leading up to the Surveyor 1 mission we had spent long hours and days checking and double checking the accuracy of these programs. Even given the extreme care taken in this validation process, we lived with the dark thought that somewhere hidden in the computer code an undetected error that could cause complete mission failure. The three programs consisted of the orbit determination program, the program that computed the final attitude maneuvers that aligned the SC thrust vector with the approach velocity vector (determined by the orbit determination program) and the powered phase computer simulation that calculated the time delay between the 60 mile marking radar signal and the main retro ignition. Fortunately by this time in the mission the orbit determination program had been validated by the initial orbit analysis calculating the launch injection errors and subsequent mid-course correction of those errors. In addition, the attitude maneuvers required to support the mid-course correction partially validated the terminal phase attitude maneuvers because of the similarity in software used. Unfortunately, software simulating the powered descent was now about to be tested for the first time in the actual Lunar environment. This software simulation was also the same software that was used to compute the required main retro propellant loading for this specific landing location.

You can imagine the thoughts going through our heads as we stared at the telemetry data readouts during those final minutes knowing that one small software error could cause mission failure. When the marking radar signal came in at approximately the predicted time we gave a big sigh of relief knowing that at least we had pointed the spacecraft in the approximate right direction. The next big event is when the range and velocity data started coming back at main retro burnout and those numbers were close to predictions. At that point the final descent was flawless, and confirmed that the dedication and effort by all the scientists and engineers had built a perfect Surveyor!!!

One final thought. I will always remember driving home in the middle of the night after staying to watch that first picture come back and seeing that big moon up in the dark sky and still not quite believing that the Surveyor Team had really pulled off a perfect mission on the first try.

One thought on “The Story of Surveyor I—Jack Fisher

  1. Hi Jack,

    I put this together in about 20 minutes before heading off to bed so I’m sure it could use a lot of editing!

    Before a successful automated powered descent to the Lunar surface could be begin, we in Systems Engineering had to run several computer programs to generate the final required spacecraft commands. In the months leading up to the Surveyor 1 mission we had spent long hours and days checking and double checking the accuracy of these programs. Even given the extreme care taken in this validation process, we lived with the dark thought that somewhere hidden in the computer code an undetected error that could cause complete mission failure. The three programs consisted of the orbit determination program, the program that computed the final attitude maneuvers that aligned the SC thrust vector with the approach velocity vector (determined by the orbit determination program) and the powered phase computer simulation that calculated the time delay between the 60 mile marking radar signal and the main retro ignition. Fortunately by this time in the mission the orbit determination program had been validated by the initial orbit analysis calculating the launch injection errors and subsequent mid-course correction of those errors. In addition, the attitude maneuvers required to support the mid-course correction partially validated the terminal phase attitude maneuvers because of the similarity in software used. Unfortunately, software simulating the powered descent was now about to be tested for the first time in the actual Lunar environment. This software simulation was also the same software that was used to compute the required main retro propellant loading for this specific landing location.

    You can imagine the thoughts going through our heads as we stared at the telemetry data readouts during those final minutes knowing that one small software error could cause mission failure. When the marking radar signal came in at approximately the predicted time we gave a big sigh of relief knowing that at least we had pointed the spacecraft in the approximate right direction. The next big event is when the range and velocity data started coming back at main retro burnout and those numbers were close to predictions. At that point the final descent was flawless, and confirmed that the dedication and effort by all the scientists and engineers had built a perfect Surveyor!!!

    One final thought. I will always remember driving home in the middle of the night after staying to watch that first picture come back and seeing that big moon up in the dark sky and still not quite believing that the Survey Team had really pulled off a perfect mission on the first try.