To Behold the Moon: The Lunar Orbiter Project

To Behold the Moon: The Lunar Orbiter Project. Chapter 10, Spaceflight Revolution, NASA SP-4308
But, Cliff, you said we weren’t going to improvise like this….
But, listen to what I say now! We’ve worked out the numbers. It’s worth the risk.

– Conversation between Boeing engineer project manager Robert J. Helberg and Clifford H. Nelson, head of Langley’s Lunar Orbiter Project Office, concerning a change in the mission plan for Lunar Orbiter 1.
The bold plan for an Apollo mission based on LOR held the promise of landing on the moon by 1969, but it presented many daunting technical difficulties. Before NASA could dare attempt any type of lunar landing, it had to learn a great deal more about the destination. Although no one believed that the moon was made of green cheese, some lunar theories of the early 1960s seemed equally fantastic. One theory suggested that the moon was covered by a layer of dust perhaps 50 feet thick. If this were true, no spacecraft would be able to safely land on or take off from the lunar surface. Another theory claimed that the moon’s dust was not nearly so thick but that it possessed an electrostatic charge that would cause it to stick to the windows of the lunar landing vehicle, thus making it impossible for the astronauts to see out as they landed. Cornell University astronomer Thomas Gold warned that the moon might even be composed of a spongy material that would crumble upon impact.1
At Langley, Dr. Leonard Roberts, a British mathematician in Clint Brown’s Theoretical Mechanics Division, pondered the riddle of the lunar [312] surface and drew an equally pessimistic conclusion. Roberts speculated that because the moon was millions of years old and had been constantly bombarded without the protection of an atmosphere, its surface was most likely so soft that any vehicle attempting to land on it would sink and be buried as if it had landed in quicksand. After the president’s commitment to a manned lunar landing in 1961, Roberts began an extensive three year research program to show just what would happen if an exhaust rocket blasted into a surface of very thick powdered sand. His analysis indicated that an incoming rocket would throw up a mountain of sand, thus creating a big rim all the way around the outside of the landed spacecraft. Once the spacecraft settled, this huge bordering volume of sand would collapse, completely engulf the spacecraft, and kill its occupants.2
Telescopes revealed little about the nature of the lunar surface. Not even the latest, most powerful optical instruments could see through the earth’s atmosphere well enough to resolve the moon’s detailed surface features. Even an object the size of a football stadium would not show up on a telescopic photograph, and enlarging the photograph would only increase the blur. To separate fact from fiction and obtain the necessary information about the craters, crevices, and jagged rocks on the lunar surface, NASA would have to send out automated probes to take a closer look.
The first of these probes took off for the moon in January 1962 as part of a NASA project known as Ranger. A small 800-pound spacecraft was to make a “hard landing,” crashing to its destruction on the moon. Before Ranger crashed, however, its on-board multiple television camera payload was to send back close views of the surface -views far more detailed than any captured by a telescope. Sadly, the first six Ranger probes were not successful. Malfunctions of the booster or failures of the launch-vehicle guidance system plagued the first three attempts; malfunctions of the spacecraft itself hampered the fourth and fifth probes; and the primary experiment could not take place during the sixth Ranger attempt because the television equipment would not transmit. Although these incomplete missions did provide some extremely valuable high-resolution photographs, as well as some significant data on the performance of Ranger’s systems, in total the highly publicized record of failures embarrassed NASA and demoralized the Ranger project managers at JPL. Fortunately, the last three Ranger flights in 1964 and 1965 were successful. These flights showed that a lunar landing was possible, but the site would have to be carefully chosen to avoid craters and big boulders.3
JPL managed a follow-on project to Ranger known as Surveyor. Despite failures and serious schedule delays, between May 1966 and January 1968, six Surveyor spacecraft made successful soft landings at predetermined points on the lunar surface. From the touchdown dynamics, surface-bearing strength measurements, and eye-level television scanning of the local surface conditions, NASA learned that the moon could easily support the impact and the weight of a small lander. Originally, NASA also [313] planned for (and Congress had authorized) a second type of Surveyor spacecraft, which instead of making a soft landing on the moon, was to be equipped for high-resolution stereoscopic film photography of the moon’s surface from lunar orbit and for instrumented measurements of the lunar environment. However, this second Surveyor or “Surveyor Orbiter” did not materialize. The staff and facilities of JPL were already overburdened with the responsibilities for Ranger and “Surveyor Lander”; they simply could not take on another major spaceflight project.4
In 1963, NASA scrapped its plans for a Surveyor Orbiter and turned its attention to a lunar orbiter project that would not use the Surveyor spacecraft system or the Surveyor launch vehicle, Centaur. Lunar Orbiter would have a new spacecraft and use the Atlas-Agena D to launch it into space. Unlike the preceding unmanned lunar probes, which were originally designed for general scientific study, Lunar Orbiter was conceived after a manned lunar landing became a national commitment. The project goal from the start was to support the Apollo mission. Specifically, Lunar Orbiter was designed to provide information on the lunar surface conditions most relevant to a spacecraft landing. This meant, among other things, that its camera had to be sensitive enough to capture subtle slopes and minor protuberances and depressions over a broad area of the moon’s front side. As an early working group on the requirements of the lunar photographic mission had determined, Lunar Orbiter had to allow the identification of 45-meter objects over the entire facing surface of the moon, 4.5-meter objects in the “Apollo zone of interest,” and 1.2-meter objects in all the proposed landing areas.5
Five Lunar Orbiter missions took place. The first launch occurred in August 1966 within two months of the initial target date. The next four Lunar Orbiters were launched on schedule; the final mission was completed in August 1967, barely a year after the first launch. NASA had planned five flights because mission reliability studies had indicated that five might be necessary to achieve even one success. However, all five Lunar Orbiters were successful, and the prime objective of the project, which was to photograph in detail all the proposed landing sites, was met in three missions. This meant that the last two flights could be devoted to photographic exploration of the rest of the lunar surface for more general scientific purposes. The final cost of the program was not slight: it totaled $163 million, which was more than twice the original estimate of $77 million. That increase, however, compares favorably with the escalation in the price of similar projects, such as Surveyor, which had an estimated cost of $125 million and a final cost of $469 million.
In retrospect, Lunar Orbiter must be, and rightfully has been, regarded as an unqualified success. For the people and institutions responsible, the project proved to be an overwhelmingly positive learning experience on which greater capabilities and ambitions were built. For both the prime contractor, the Boeing Company, a world leader in the building of….


Lunar Orbiter above the lunar surface.

The most successful of the pre-Apollo probes, Lunar Orbiter mapped the equatorial regions of the moon and gave NASA the data it needed to pinpoint ideal landing spots.

[315]…. airplanes, and the project manager, Langley Research Center, a premier aeronautics laboratory, involvement in Lunar Orbiter was a turning point. The successful execution of a risky enterprise became proof positive that they were more than capable of moving into the new world of deep space. For many observers as well as for the people who worked on the project, Lunar Orbiter quickly became a model of how to handle a program of space exploration its successful progress demonstrated how a clear and discrete objective, strong leadership, and positive person-to-person communication skills can keep a project on track from start to finish.6
Many people inside the American space science community believed that neither Boeing nor Langley was capable of managing a project like Lunar Orbiter or of supporting the integration of first-rate scientific experiments and space missions. After NASA headquarters announced in the summer of 1963 that Langley would manage Lunar Orbiter, more than one space scientist was upset. Dr. Harold C. Urey, a prominent scientist from the University of California at San Diego, wrote a letter to Administrator James Webb asking him, “How in the world could the Langley Research Center, which is nothing more than a bunch of plumbers, manage this scientific program to the moon?”7
Urey’s questioning of Langley’s competency was part of an unfolding debate over the proper place of general scientific objectives within NASA’s spaceflight programs. The U.S. astrophysics community and Dr. Homer E. Newell’s Office of Space Sciences at NASA headquarters wanted “quality science” experiments incorporated into every space mission, but this caused problems. Once the commitment had been made to a lunar landing mission, NASA had to decide which was more important: gathering broad scientific information or obtaining data required for accomplishing the lunar landing mission. Ideally, both goals could be incorporated in a project without one compromising the other, but when that seemed impossible, one of the two had to be given priority. The requirements of the manned mission usually won out. For Ranger and Surveyor, projects involving dozens of outside scientists and the large and sophisticated Space Science Division at JPL, that meant that some of the experiments would turn out to be less extensive than the space scientists wanted.8 For Lunar Orbiter, a project involving only a few astrogeologists at the U.S. Geological Survey and a very few space scientists at Langley, it meant, ironically, that the primary goal of serving Apollo would be achieved so quickly that general scientific objectives could be included in its last two missions.

The “Moonball” Experiment

Langley management had entered the fray between science and project engineering during the planning for Project Ranger. At the first Senior Council meeting of the Office of Space Sciences (soon to be renamed [316] the Office of Space Sciences and Applications [OSSA]) held at NASA headquarters on 7 June 1962, Langley Associate Director Charles Donlan had questioned the priority of a scientific agenda for the agency’s proposed unmanned lunar probes because a national commitment had since been made to a manned lunar landing. The initial requirements for the probes had been set long before Kennedy’s announcement, and therefore, Donlan felt NASA needed to rethink them. Based on his experience at Langley and with Gilruth’s STG, Donlan knew that the space science people could be “rather unbending” about adjusting experiments to obtain “scientific data which would assist the manned program.” What needed to be done now, he felt, was to turn the attention of the scientists to exploration that would have more direct applications to the Apollo lunar landing program.9
Donlan was distressed specifically by the Office of Space Sciences’ recent rejection of a lunar surface experiment proposed by a penetrometer feasibility study group at Langley. This small group, consisting of half a dozen people from the Dynamic Loads and Instrument Research divisions, had devised a spherical projectile, dubbed “Moonball,” that was equipped with accelerometers capable of transmitting acceleration versus time signatures during impact with the lunar surface. With these data, researchers could determine the hardness, texture, and load-bearing strength of possible lunar landing sites. The group recommended that Moonball be flown as part of the follow-on to Ranger.10
A successful landing of an intact payload required that the landing loads not exceed the structural capabilities of the vehicle and that the vehicle make its landing in some tenable position so it could take off again. Both of these requirements demanded a knowledge of basic physical properties of the surface material, particularly data demonstrating its hardness or resistance to penetration. In the early 1960s, these properties were still unknown, and the Langley penetrometer feasibility study group wanted to identify them. Without the information, any design of Apollo’s lunar lander would have to be based on assumed surface characteristics.11
In the opinion of the Langley penetrometer group, its lunar surface hardness experiment would be of “general scientific interest,” but it would, more importantly, provide “timely engineering information important to the design of the Apollo manned lunar landing vehicle.” 12 Experts at JPL, however, questioned whether surface hardness was an important criterion for any experiment and argued that “the determination of the terrain was more important, particularly for a horizontal landing.”13 In the end, the Office of Space Sciences rejected the Langley idea in favor of making further seismometer experiments, which might tell scientists something basic about the origins of the moon and its astrogeological history.*


Associate Director Charles J. Donlan.

Associate Director Charles J. Donlan understood that the requirements of the manned lunar landing took priority Over pure science experiments. L-67-8553.

For engineer Donlan, representing a research organization like Langley dominated by engineers and by their quest for practical solutions to applied problems, this rejection seemed a mistake. The issue came down to what NASA needed to know now. That might have been science before Kennedy’s commitment, but it definitely was not science after it. In Donlan’s view, Langley’s rejected approach to lunar impact studies had been the correct one. The consensus at the first Senior Council meeting, however, was that “pure science experiments will be able to provide the engineering answers for Project Apollo.” 14
Over the next few years, the engineering requirements for Apollo would win out almost totally. As historian R. Cargill Hall explains in his story of Project Ranger, a “melding” of interests occurred between the Office….


Structural dynamics testing for lunar landing.


Lunar Orbiter III photo of Kepler crater.


Langley gathered information specifically for the accomplishment of Apollo. Top, a Langley engineer monitors the structural dynamics of a simulated lunar landing in early 1963. Bottom, Lunar Orbiter III maps a potential Apollo landing site. The large crater is Kepler, which is 30 miles across.

[319] ….of Space Sciences and the Office of Manned Space Flight followed by a virtually complete subordination of the scientific priorities originally built into the unmanned projects. Those priorities, as important as they were, “quite simply did not rate” with Apollo in importance.15

Initiating Lunar Orbiter

The sensitive camera eyes of the Lunar Orbiter spacecraft carried out a vital reconnaissance mission in support of the Apollo program. Although NASA designed the project to provide scientists with quantitative information about the moon’s gravitational field and the dangers of micrometeorites and solar radiation in the vicinity of the lunar environment, the primary objective of Lunar Orbiter was to fly over and photograph the best landing sites for the Apollo spacecraft. NASA suspected that it might have enough information about the lunar terrain to land astronauts safely without the detailed photographic mosaics of the lunar surface compiled from the orbiter flights, but certainly landing sites could be pinpointed more accurately with the help of high-resolution photographic maps Lunar Orbiter would even help to train the astronauts for visual recognition of the lunar topography and for last-second maneuvering above it before touchdown.
Langley had never managed a deep-space flight project before, and Director Floyd Thompson was not sure that he wanted to take on the burden of responsibility when Oran Nicks, the young director of lunar and planetary programs in Homer Newell’s Office of Space Sciences, came to him with the idea early in 1963. Along with Newell’s deputy, Edgar M. Cortright, Nicks was the driving force behind the orbiter mission at NASA headquarters. Cortright, however, first favored giving the project to JPL and using Surveyor Orbiter and the Hughes Aircraft Company, which was the prime contractor for Surveyor Lander. Nicks disagreed with this plan and worked to persuade Cortright and others that he was right. In Nicks’ judgment, JPL had more than it could handle with Ranger and Surveyor Lander and should not have anything else “put on its plate,” certainly not anything as large as the Lunar Orbiter project. NASA Langley, on the other hand, besides having a reputation for being able to handle a variety of aerospace tasks, had just lost the STG to Houston and so, Nicks thought, would be eager to take on the new challenge of a lunar orbiter project. Nicks worked to persuade Cortright that distributing responsibilities and operational programs among the NASA field centers would be “a prudent management decision.” NASA needed balance among its research centers. To ensure NASA’s future in space, headquarters must assign to all its centers challenging endeavors that would stimulate the development of “new and varied capabilities.”16
[320] Cortright was persuaded and gave Nicks permission to approach Floyd Thompson.** This Nicks did on 2 January 1963, during a Senior Council meeting of the Office of Space Sciences at Cape Canaveral. Nicks asked Thompson whether Langley “would be willing to study the feasibility of undertaking a lunar photography experiment,” and Thompson answered cautiously that he would ask his staff to consider the idea.17
The historical record does not tell us much about Thompson’s personal thoughts regarding taking on Lunar Orbiter. But one can infer from the evidence that Thompson had mixed feelings, not unlike those he experienced about supporting the STG. The Langley director would not only give Nicks a less than straightforward answer to his question but also would think about the offer long and hard before committing the center. Thompson invited several trusted staff members to share their feelings about assuming responsibility for the project. For instance, he went to Clint Brown, by then one of his three assistant directors for research, and asked him what he thought Langley should do. Brown told him emphatically that he did not think Langley should take on Lunar Orbiter. An automated deep-space project would be difficult to manage successfully. The Lunar Orbiter would be completely different from the Ranger and Surveyor spacecraft and being a new design, would no doubt encounter many unforeseen problems. Even if it were done to everyone’s satisfaction -and the proposed schedule for the first launches sounded extremely tight -Langley would probably handicap its functional research divisions to give the project all the support that it would need. Projects devoured resources. Langley staff had learned this firsthand from its experience with the STG. Most of the work for Lunar Orbiter would rest in the management of contracts at industrial plants and in the direction of launch and mission control operations at Cape Canaveral and Pasadena. Brown, for one, did not want to be involved.18
But Thompson decided, in what Brown now calls his director’s “greater wisdom,” that the center should accept the job of managing the project. Some researchers in Brown’s own division had been proposing a Langley-directed photographic mission to the moon for some time, and Thompson, too, was excited by the prospect.19 Furthermore, the revamped Lunar Orbiter was not going to be a space mission seeking general scientific knowledge about the moon. It was going to be a mission directly in support of Apollo, and this meant that engineering requirements would be primary. Langley staff preferred that practical orientation; their past work often resembled projects on a smaller scale. Whether the “greater wisdom” stemmed from Thompson’s own powers of judgment is still not certain. Some informed Langley veterans, notably Brown, feel that Thompson must [321] have also received some strongly stated directive from NASA headquarters that said Langley had no choice but to take on the project.
Whatever was the case in the beginning, Langley management soon welcomed Lunar Orbiter. It was a chance to prove that they could manage a major undertaking. Floyd Thompson personally oversaw many aspects of the project and for more than four years did whatever he could to make sure that Langley’s functional divisions supported it fully. Through most of this period, he would meet every Wednesday morning with the top people in the project office to hear about the progress of their work and offer his own ideas. As one staff member recalls, “I enjoyed these meetings thoroughly. [Thompson was] the most outstanding guy I’ve ever met, a tremendously smart man who knew what to do and when to do it.”20
Throughout the early months of 1963, Langley worked with its counterparts at NASA headquarters to establish a solid and cooperative working relationship for Lunar Orbiter. The center began to draw up preliminary specifications for a lightweight orbiter spacecraft and for the vehicle that would launch it (already thought to be the Atlas-Agena D). While Langley personnel were busy with that, TRW’s Space Technologies Laboratories (STL) of Redondo Beach, California, was conducting a parallel study of a lunar orbiter photographic spacecraft under contract to NASA headquarters. Representatives from STL reported on this work at meetings at Langley on 25 February and 5 March 1963. Langley researchers reviewed the contractor’s assessment and found that STL’s estimates of the chances for mission success closely matched their own. If five missions were attempted, the probability of achieving one success was 93 percent. The probability of achieving two was 81 percent. Both studies confirmed that a lunar orbiter system using existing hardware would be able to photograph a landed Surveyor and would thus be able to verify the conditions of that possible Apollo landing site. The independent findings concluded that the Lunar Orbiter project could be done successfully and should be done quickly because its contribution to the Apollo program would be great. 21

Project Management

With the exception of its involvement in the X-series research airplane programs at Muroc, Langley had not managed a major project during the period of the NACA. As a NASA center, Langley would have to learn to manage projects that involved contractors, subcontractors, other NASA facilities, and headquarters -a tall order for an organization used to doing all its work in-house with little outside interference. Only three major projects were assigned to Langley in the early 1960s: Scout, in 1960; Fire, in 1961; and Lunar Orbiter, in 1963. Project Mercury and Little Joe, although heavily supported by Langley, had been managed by the independent STG, and Project Echo, although managed by Langley for a while, eventually was given to Goddard to oversee.
[322] To prepare for Lunar Orbiter in early 1963, Langley management reviewed what the center had done to initiate the already operating Scout and Fire projects. It also tried to learn from JPL about inaugurating paperwork for, and subsequent management of, Projects Ranger and Surveyor. After these reviews, Langley felt ready to prepare the formal documents required by NASA for the start-up of the project.22
As Langley prepared for Lunar Orbiter, NASA’s policies and procedures for project management were changing. In October 1962, spurred on by its new top man, James Webb, the agency had begun to implement a series of structural changes in its overall organization. These were designed to improve relations between headquarters and the field centers, an area of fundamental concern. Instead of managing the field centers through the Office of Programs, as had been the case, NASA was moving them under the command of the headquarters program directors. For Langley, this meant direct lines of communication with the OART and the OSSA. By the end of 1963, a new organizational framework was in place that allowed for more effective management of NASA projects.
In early March 1963, as part of Webb’s reform, NASA headquarters issued an updated version of General Management Instruction 4-1-1. This revised document established formal guidelines for the planning and management of a project. Every project was supposed to pass through four preliminary stages: (1) Project Initiation, (2) Project Approval, (3) Project Implementation, and (4) Organization for Project Management.23 Each step required the submission of a formal document for headquarters’ approval.
From the beginning, everyone involved with Lunar Orbiter realized that it had to be a fast-track project. In order to help Apollo, everything about it had to be initiated quickly and without too much concern about the letter of the law in the written procedures. Consequently, although no step was to be taken without first securing approval for the preceding step, Langley initiated the paperwork for all four project stages at the same time. This same no-time-to-lose attitude ruled the schedule for project development. All aspects had to be developed concurrently. Launch facilities had to be planned at the same time that the design of the spacecraft started. The photographic, micrometeoroid, and selenodetic experiments had to be prepared even before the mission operations plan was complete. Everything proceeded in parallel: the development of the spacecraft, the mission design, the operational plan and preparation of ground equipment, the creation of computer programs, as well as a testing plan. About this parallel development, Donald H. Ward, a key member of Langley’s Lunar Orbiter project team, remarked, “Sometimes this causes undoing some mistakes, but it gets to the end product a lot faster than a serial operation where you design the spacecraft and then the facilities to support it.”24 Using the all-at-once approach, Langley put Lunar Orbiter in orbit around the moon only 27 months after signing with the contractor.


Israel Taback and Clifford H. Nelson, 1964.

Israel Taback (left) and Clifford H. Nelson (right), head of LOPO, ponder the intricacies of the spacecraft design.

On 11 September 1963, Director Floyd Thompson formally established the Lunar Orbiter Project Office (LOPO) at Langley, a lean organization of just a few people who had been at work on Lunar Orbiter since May. Thompson named Clifford H. Nelson as the project manager. An NACA veteran and head of the Measurements Research Branch of IRD, Nelson was an extremely bright engineer. He had served as project engineer on several flight research programs, and Thompson believed that he showed great promise as a technical manager. He worked well with others, and Thompson knew that skill in interpersonal relations would be essential in managing Lunar Orbiter because so much of the work would entail interacting with contractors.
To help Nelson, Thompson originally reassigned eight people to LOPO: engineers Israel Taback, Robert Girouard, William I. Watson, Gerald Brewer, John B. Graham, Edmund A. Brummer, financial accountant Robert Fairburn, and secretary Anna Plott. This group was far smaller than the staff of 100 originally estimated for this office. The most important technical minds brought in to participate came from either IRD or from the Applied Materials and Physics Division, which was the old PARD. Taback was the experienced and sage head of the Navigation and Guidance Branch of IRD; Brummer, an expert in telemetry, also came from IRD; and two [324] new Langley men, Graham and Watson, were brought in to look over the integration of mission operations and spacecraft assembly for the project. A little later IRD’s talented Bill Boyer also joined the group as flight operations manager, as did the outstanding mission analyst Norman L. Crabill, who had just finished working on Project Echo. All four of the NACA veterans were serving as branch heads at the time of their assignment to LOPO. This is significant given that individuals at that level of authority and experience are often too entrenched and concerned about further career development to take a temporary assignment on a high-risk project. The LOPO staff set up an office in a room in the large 16-Foot Transonic Tunnel building in the Langley West Area.
When writing the Request for Proposals, Nelson, Taback, and the others involved could only afford the time necessary to prepare a brief document, merely a few pages long, that sketched out some of the detailed requirements. As Israel Taback remembers, even before the project office was established, he and a few fellow members of what would become LOPO had already talked extensively with the potential contractors. Taback explains, “Our idea was that they would be coming back to us [with details]. So it wasn’t like we were going out cold, with a brand new program.”25
Langley did need to provide one critical detail in the request: the means for stabilizing the spacecraft in lunar orbit. Taback recalls that an “enormous difference” arose between Langley and NASA headquarters over this issue. The argument was about whether the Request for Proposals should require that the contractors produce a rotating satellite known as a “spinner.” The staff of the OSSA preferred a spinner based on STL’s previous study of Lunar Orbiter requirements. However, Langley’s Lunar Orbiter staff doubted the wisdom of specifying the means of stabilization in the Request for Proposals. They wished to keep the door open to other, perhaps better, ways of stabilizing the vehicle for photography.
The goal of the project, after all, was to take the best possible high-resolution pictures of the moon’s surface. To do that, NASA needed to create the best possible orbital platform for the spacecraft’s sophisticated camera equipment, whatever that turned out to be. From their preliminary analysis and conversations about mission requirements, Taback, Nelson, and others in LOPO felt that taking these pictures from a three-axis (yaw, pitch, and roll), attitude-stabilized device would be easier than taking them from a spinner. A spinner would cause distortions of the image because of the rotation of the vehicle. Langley’s John F. Newcomb of the Aero Space Mechanics Division (and eventual member of LOPO) had calculated that this distortion would destroy the resolution and thus seriously compromise the overall quality of the pictures. This was a compromise that the people at Langley quickly decided they could not live with. Thus, for sound technical reasons, Langley insisted that the design of the orbiter be kept an open matter and not be specified in the Request for Proposals. Even if Langley’s engineers were wrong and a properly designed spinner would [325] be most effective, the sensible approach was to entertain all the ideas the aerospace industry could come up with before choosing a design.26
For several weeks in the summer of 1963, headquarters tried to resist the Langley position. Preliminary studies by both STL for the OSSA and by Bell Communications (BellComm) for the Office of Manned Space Flight indicated that a rotating spacecraft using a spin-scan film camera similar to the one developed by the Rand Corporation in 1958 for an air force satellite reconnaissance system ( “spy in the sky” ) would work well for Lunar Orbiter. Such a spinner would be less complicated and less costly than the three-axis-stabilized spacecraft preferred by Langley.27
But Langley staff would not cave in on an issue so fundamental to the project’s success. Eventually Newell, Cortright, Nicks, and Scherer in the OSSA offered a compromise that Langley could accept: the Request for Proposals could state that “if bidders could offer approaches which differed from the established specifications but which would result in substantial gains in the probability of mission success, reliability, schedule, and economy,” then NASA most certainly invited them to submit those alternatives. The request would also emphasize that NASA wanted a lunar orbiter that was built from as much off-the shelf hardware as possible. The development of many new technological systems would require time that Langley did not have.28
Langley and headquarters had other differences of opinion about the request. For example, a serious problem arose over the nature of the contract. Langley’s chief procurement officer, Sherwood Butler, took the conservative position that a traditional cost-plus-a-fixed-fee contract would be best in a project in which several unknown development problems were bound to arise. With this kind of contract, NASA would pay the contractor for all actual costs plus a sum of money fixed by the contract negotiations as a reasonable profit.
NASA headquarters, on the other hand, felt that some attractive financial incentives should be built into the contract. Although unusual up to this point in NASA history, headquarters believed that an incentives contract would be best for Lunar Orbiter. Such a contract would assure that the contractor would do everything possible to solve all the problems encountered and make sure that the project worked. The incentives could be written up in such a way that if, for instance, the contractor lost money on any one Lunar Orbiter mission, the loss could be recouped with a handsome profit on the other missions. The efficacy of a cost-plus-incentives contract rested in the solid premise that nothing motivated a contractor more than making money. NASA headquarters apparently understood this better than Langley’s procurement officer who wanted to keep tight fiscal control over the project and did not want to do the hairsplitting that often came with evaluating whether the incentive clauses had been met.29
On the matter of incentives, Langley’s LOPO engineers sided against their own man and with NASA headquarters. They, too, thought that [326] incentives were the best way to do business with a contractor -as well as the best way to illustrate the urgency that NASA attached to Lunar Orbiter.30 The only thing that bothered them was the vagueness of the incentives being discussed. When Director Floyd Thompson understood that his engineers really wanted to take the side of headquarters on this issue, he quickly concurred. He insisted only on three things: the incentives had to be based on clear stipulations tied to cost, delivery, and performance, with penalties for deadline overruns; the contract had to be fully negotiated and signed before Langley started working with any contractor (in other words, work could not start under a letter of intent); and all bidding had to be competitive. Thompson worried that the OSSA might be biased in favor of STL as the prime contractor because of STL’s prior study of the requirements of lunar orbiter systems.31
In mid-August 1963, with these problems worked out with headquarters, Langley finalized the Request for Proposals and associated Statement of Work, which outlined specifications, and delivered both to Captain Lee R. Scherer, Lunar Orbiter’s program manager at NASA headquarters, for presentation to Ed Cortright and his deputy Oran Nicks. The documents stated explicitly that the main mission of Lunar Orbiter was “the acquisition of photographic data of high and medium resolution for selection of suitable Apollo and Surveyor landing sites.” The request set out detailed criteria for such things as identifying “cones” (planar features at right angles to a flat surface), “slopes” (circular areas inclined with respect to the plane perpendicular to local gravity), and other subtle aspects of the lunar surface. Obtaining information about the size and shape of the moon and about the lunar gravitational field was deemed less important. By omitting a detailed description of the secondary objectives in the request, Langley made clear that “under no circumstances” could anything “be allowed to dilute the major photo reconnaissance mission.”32 The urgency of the national commitment to a manned lunar landing mission was the force driving Lunar Orbiter. Langley wanted no confusion on that point.

The Source Evaluation Board

Cliff Nelson and LOPO moved quickly in September 1963 to create a Source Evaluation Board that would possess the technical expertise and good judgment to help NASA choose wisely from among the industrial firms bidding for Lunar Orbiter. A large board of reviewers (comprising more than 80 evaluators and consultants from NASA centers and other aerospace organizations) was divided into groups to evaluate the technical feasibility, cost, contract management concepts, business operations, and other critical aspects of the proposals. One group, the so-called Scientists’ Panel, judged the suitability of the proposed spacecraft for providing valuable information to the scientific community after the photographic [327] mission had been completed. Langley’s two representatives on the Scientists’ Panel were Clint Brown and Dr. Samuel Katzoff, an extremely insightful engineering analyst, 27-year Langley veteran, and assistant chief of the Applied Materials and Physics Division.
Although the opinions of all the knowledgeable outsiders were taken .seriously, Langley intended to make the decision.33 Chairing the Source Evaluation Board was Eugene Draley, one of Floyd Thompson’s assistant directors. When the board finished interviewing all the bidders, hearing their oral presentations, and tallying the results of its scoring of the proposals (a possible 70 points for technical merit and 30 points for business management), it was to present a formal recommendation to Thompson. He in turn would pass on the findings with comments to Homer Newell’s office in Washington.
Five major aerospace firms submitted proposals for the Lunar Orbiter contract. Three were California firms: STL in Redondo Beach, Lockheed Missiles and Space Company of Sunnyvale, and Hughes Aircraft Company of Los Angeles. The Martin Company of Baltimore and the Boeing Company of Seattle were the other two bidders.34
Three of the five proposals were excellent. Hughes had been developing an ingenious spin-stabilization system for geosynchronous communication satellites, which helped the company to submit an impressive proposal for a rotating vehicle. With Hughes’s record in spacecraft design and fabrication, the Source Evaluation Board gave Hughes serious consideration. STL also submitted a fine proposal for a spin-stabilized rotator. This came as no surprise, of course, given STL’s prior work for Surveyor as well as its prior contractor studies on lunar orbiter systems for NASA headquarters.
The third outstanding proposal -entitled “ACLOPS” (Agena-Class Lunar Orbiter Project) -was Boeing’s. The well-known airplane manufacturer had not been among the companies originally invited to bid on Lunar Orbiter and was not recognized as the most logical of contenders. However, Boeing recently had successfully completed the Bomarc missile program and was anxious to become involved with the civilian space program, especially now that the DOD was canceling Dyna-Soar, an air force project for the development of an experimental X-20 aerospace plane. This cancellation released several highly qualified U.S. Air Force personnel, who were still working at Boeing, to support a new Boeing undertaking in space. Company representatives had visited Langley to discuss Lunar Orbiter, and Langley engineers had been so excited by what they had heard that they had pestered Thompson to persuade Seamans to extend an invitation to Boeing to join the bidding. The proposals from Martin, a newcomer in the business of automated space probes, and Lockheed, a company with years of experience handling the Agena space vehicle for the air force, were also quite satisfactory. In the opinion of the Source Evaluation Board, however, the proposals from Martin and Lockheed were not as strong as those from Boeing and Hughes.
[328] The LOPO staff and the Langley representatives decided early in the evaluation that they wanted Boeing to be selected as the contractor; on behalf of the technical review team, Israel Taback had made this preference known both in private conversations with, and formal presentations to, the Source Evaluation Board. Boeing was Langley’s choice because it proposed a three axis stabilized spacecraft rather than a spinner. For attitude reference in orbit, the spacecraft would use an optical sensor similar to the one that was being planned for use on the Mariner C spacecraft, which fixed on the star Canopus.
An attitude stabilized orbiter eliminated the need for a focal-length spin camera. This type of photographic system, first conceived by Merton E. Davies of the Rand Corporation in 1958, could compensate for the distortions caused by a rotating spacecraft but would require extensive development. In the Boeing proposal, Lunar Orbiter would carry a photo subsystem designed by Eastman Kodak and used on DOD spy satellites.35 This subsystem worked automatically and with the precision of a Swiss watch. It employed two lenses that took pictures simultaneously on a roll of 70-millimeter aerial film. If one lens failed, the other still worked. One lens had a focal length of 610 millimeters (24 inches) and could take pictures from an altitude of 46 kilometers (28.5 miles) with a high resolution for limited-area coverage of approximately 1 meter. The other, which had a focal length of about 80 millimeters (3 inches), could take pictures with a medium resolution of approximately 8 meters for wide coverage of the lunar surface. The film would be developed on board the spacecraft using the proven Eastman Kodak “Bimat” method. The film would be in contact with a web containing a single solution dry processing chemical, which eliminated the need to use wet chemicals. Developed automatically and wound onto a storage spool, the processed film could then be “read out” and transmitted by the spacecraft’s communications subsystem to receiving stations of JPL’s worldwide Deep Space Network, which was developed for communication with spacefaring vehicles destined for the moon and beyond. 36
How Boeing had the good sense to propose an attitude-stabilized platform based on the Eastman Kodak camera, rather than to propose a rotator with a yet-to be developed camera is not totally clear. Langley engineers had conversed with representatives of all the interested bidders, so Boeing’s people might possibly have picked up on Langley’s concerns about the quality of photographs from spinners. The other bidders, especially STL and Hughes, with their expertise in spin-stabilized spacecraft, might also have picked up on those concerns but were too confident in the type of rotationally stabilized system they had been working on to change course in midstream.
Furthermore, Boeing had been working closely with RCA, which for a time was also thinking about submitting a proposal for Lunar Orbiter. RCA’s idea was a lightweight (200-kilogram), three axis, attitude stabilized, and camera-bearing payload that could be injected into lunar orbit as part of a Ranger-type probe. A lunar orbiter study group, chaired by Lee Scherer…..


Eastman Kodak dual-imaging camera system.

Lunar Orbiter was essentially a flying camera. The payload structure was built around a pressurized shell holding Eastman Kodak’s dual-imaging photographic system, which used a camera with wide-angle and telephoto lenses that could simultaneously take two kinds of pictures on the same film. L-67-5655.

….at NASA headquarters, had evaluated RCA’s approach in October 1962, however, and found it lacking. It was too expensive ($20.4 million for flying only three spacecraft), and its proposed vidicon television unit could not cover the lunar surface either in the detail or the wide panoramas NASA wanted.37
Boeing knew all about this rejected RCA approach. After talking to Langley’s engineers, the company shrewdly decided to stay with an attitude stabilized orbiter but to dump the use of the inadequate vidicon television. Boeing replaced the television system with an instrument with a proven track record in planetary reconnaissance photography: the Eastman Kodak spy camera.38
On 20 December 1963, two weeks after the Source Evaluation Board made its formal recommendation to Administrator James Webb in Washington, NASA announced that it would be negotiating with Boeing as prime contractor for the Lunar Orbiter project. Along with the excellence of its proposed spacecraft design and Kodak camera, NASA singled out the strength of Boeing’s commitment to the project and its corporate capabilities to…..


Lee R. Scherer.

Capt. Lee R. Scherer served as Lunar Orbiter’s program manager at NASA headquarters.

….complete it on schedule without relying on many subcontractors. Still, the choice was a bit ironic. Only 14 months earlier, the Scherer study group had rejected RCA’s approach in favor of a study of a spin-stabilized spacecraft proposed by STL. Now Boeing had outmaneuvered its competition by proposing a spacecraft that incorporated essential features of the rejected RCA concept and almost none from the STL’s previously accepted one.
Boeing won the contract even though it asked for considerably more money than any of the other bidders. The lowest bid, from Hughes, was $41,495,339, less than half of Boeing’s $83,562,199, a figure that would quickly rise when the work started. Not surprisingly, NASA faced some congressional criticism and had to defend its choice. The agency justified its selection by referring confidently to what Boeing alone proposed to do to ensure protection of Lunar Orbiter’s photographic film from the hazards of solar radiation.39
This was a technical detail that deeply concerned LOPO. Experiments conducted by Boeing and by Dr. Trutz Foelsche, a Langley scientist in the Space Mechanics (formerly Theoretical Mechanics) Division who specialized in the study of space radiation effects, suggested that even small doses of radiation from solar flares could fog ordinary high-speed photographic film. This would be true especially in the case of an instrumented probe like Lunar Orbiter, which had thin exterior vehicular shielding. Even if the thickness of the shielding around the film was increased tenfold (from 1 g/cm2 to 10 g/cm2), Foelsche judged that high-speed film would not make it through a significant solar-particle event without serious damage.40 Thus,…..


Signing of the Lunar Orbiter contract, 1964.

L-64 -4141. Representatives of NASA Langley and Boeing signed the Lunar Orbiter contract en 16 April 1964 and sent it to NASA headquarters for final review. Three weeks later, on 7 May, Administrator James E. Webb approved the $80-million incentives contract to build five Lunar Orbiter spacecraft.

…..something extraordinary had to be done to protect the high-speed film. A better solution was not to use high-speed film at all.
As NASA explained successfully to its critics, the other bidders for the Lunar Orbiter contract relied on high-speed film and faster shutter speeds for their on-board photographic subsystems. Only Boeing did not. When delegates from STL, Hughes, Martin, and Lockheed were asked at a bidders’ briefing in November 1963 about what would happen to their film if a solar event occurred during an orbiter mission, they all had to admit that the film would be damaged seriously. Only Boeing could claim otherwise. Even with minimal shielding, the more insensitive, low-speed film used by the Kodak camera would not be fogged by high-energy radiation, not even if the spacecraft moved through the Van Allen radiation belts.41 This, indeed, proved to be the case. During the third mission of Lunar Orbiter in February 1967, a solar flare with a high amount of optical activity did occur, but the film passed through it unspoiled.42
Negotiations with Boeing did not take long. Formal negotiations began on 17 March 1964, and ended just four days later. On 7 May Administrator Webb signed the document that made Lunar Orbiter an official NASA [332] commitment. Hopes were high. But in the cynical months of 1964, with Ranger’s setbacks still making headlines and critics still faulting NASA for failing to match Soviet achievements in space, everyone doubted whether Lunar Orbiter would be ready for its first scheduled flight to the moon in just two years.

Nelson’s Team

Large projects are run by only a handful of people. Four or five key individuals delegate jobs and responsibilities to others. This was certainly true for Lunar Orbiter. From start to finish, Langley’s LOPO remained a small organization; its original nucleus of 9 staff members never grew any larger than 50 professionals. Langley management knew that keeping LOPO’s staff small meant fewer people in need of positions when the project ended. If all the positions were built into a large project office, many careers would be out on a limb; a much safer organizational method was for a small project office to draw people from other research and technical divisions to assist the project as needed.43
In the case of Lunar Orbiter, four men ran the project: Cliff Nelson, the project manager; Israel Taback, who was in charge of all activities leading to the production and testing of the spacecraft; Bill Boyer, who was responsible for planning and integrating launch and flight operations; and James V. Martin, the assistant project manager. Nelson had accepted the assignment with Thompson’s assurance that he would be given wide latitude in choosing the men and women he wanted to work with him in the project office. As a result, virtually all of his top people were hand-picked.
The one significant exception was his chief assistant, Jim Martin. In September 1964, the Langley assistant director responsible for the project office, Gene Draley, brought in Martin to help Nelson cope with some of the stickier details of Lunar Orbiter’s management. A senior manager in charge of Republic Aviation’s space systems requirements, Martin had a tremendous ability for anticipating business management problems and plenty of experience taking care of them. Furthermore, he was a well-organized and skillful executive who could make schedules, set due dates, and closely track the progress of the contractors and subcontractors. This “paper” management of a major project was troublesome for Cliff Nelson, a quiet people-oriented person. Draley knew about taskmaster Martin from Republic’s involvement in Project Fire and was hopeful that Martin’s acerbity and business-mindedness would complement Nelson’s good-heartedness and greater technical depth, especially in dealings with contractors.
Because Cliff Nelson and Jim Martin were so entirely opposite in personality, they did occasionally clash, which caused a few internal problems in LOPO. On the whole, however, the alliance worked quite well, although it was forced by Langley management. Nelson generally oversaw the whole endeavor and made sure that everybody worked together as a team. For….


Clifford H. Nelson and James S. Martin.

In contrast to the quiet, people-oriented LOPO director Cliff Nelson (left), James “Big Jim” Martin (right) breathed fire when it came to getting consistent top-grade performance from the NASA contractors. L-66-6301.

….the monitoring of the day-to-day progress of the project’s many operations, Nelson relied on the dynamic Martin. For example, when problems arose with the motion-compensation apparatus for the Kodak camera, Martin went to the contractor’s plant to assess the situation and decided that its management was not placing enough emphasis on following a schedule. Martin acted tough, pounded on the table, and made the contractor put workable schedules together quickly. When gentler persuasion was called for or subtler interpersonal relationships were involved, Nelson was the person for the job. Martin, who was technically competent but not as technically talented as Nelson, also deferred to the project manager when a decision required particularly complex engineering analysis. Thus, the two men worked together for the overall betterment of Lunar Orbiter.44
Placing an excellent person with just the right specialization in just the right job was one of the most important elements behind the success of Lunar Orbiter, and for this eminently sensible approach to project management, Cliff Nelson and Floyd Thompson deserve the lion’s share of credit. Both men cultivated a management style that emphasized direct dealings with people and often ignored formal organizational channels. Both stressed the importance of teamwork and would not tolerate any individual, however talented, willfully undermining the esprit de corps. Before filling any position in the project office, Nelson gave the selection much thought. He questioned whether the people under consideration were Compatible with others already in his project organization. He wanted to know whether candidates were goal-oriented -willing to do whatever was [334] necessary (working overtime or traveling) to complete the project.45 Because Langley possessed so many employees who had been working at the center for many years, the track record of most people was either well known or easy to ascertain. Given the outstanding performance of Lunar Orbiter and the testimonies about an exceptionally healthy work environment in the project office, Nelson did an excellent job predicting who would make a productive member of the project team.46
Considering Langley’s historic emphasis on fundamental applied aeronautical research, it might seem surprising that Langley scientists and engineers did not try to hide inside the dark return passage of a wind tunnel rather than be diverted into a spaceflight project like Lunar Orbiter. As has been discussed, some researchers at Langley (and agency-wide) objected to and resisted involvement with project work. The Surveyor project at JPL had suffered from staff members’ reluctance to leave their own specialties to work on a space project. However, by the early 1960s the enthusiasm for spaceflight ran so rampant that it was not hard to staff a space project office. All the individuals who joined LOPO at Langley came enthusiastically; otherwise Cliff Nelson would not have had them. Israel Taback, who had been running the Communications and Control Branch of IRD, remembers having become distressed with the thickening of what he calls “the paper forest”: the preparation of five-year plans, ten-year plans, and other lengthy documents needed to justify NASA’s budget requests. The work he had been doing with airplanes and aerospace vehicles was interesting (he had just finished providing much of the flight instrumentation for the X-15 program), but not so interesting that he wanted to turn down Cliff Nelson’s offer to join Lunar Orbiter. “The project was brand new and sounded much more exciting than what I had been doing,” Taback remembers. It appealed to him also because of its high visibility both inside and outside the center. Everyone had to recognize the importance of a project directly related to the national goal of landing a man on the moon. 47
Norman L. Crabill, the head of LOPO’s mission design team, also decided to join the project. On a Friday afternoon, he had received the word that one person from his branch of the Applied Materials and Physics Division would have to be named by the following Monday as a transfer to LOPO; as branch head, Crabill himself would have to make the choice. That weekend he asked himself, “What’s your own future, Crabill? This is space. If you don’t step up to this, what’s your next chance. You’ve already decided not to go with the guys to Houston.” He immediately knew who to transfer, “It was me.” That was how he “got into the space business.” And in his opinion, it was “the best thing” that he ever did.48

The Boeing Team

Cliff Nelson’s office had the good sense to realize that monitoring the prime contractor did not entail doing Boeing’s work for Boeing. Nelson [335] approached the management of Lunar Orbiter more practically: the contractor was “to perform the work at hand while the field center retained responsibility for overseeing his progress and assuring that the job was done according to the terms of the contract.” For Lunar Orbiter, this philosophy meant specifically that the project office would have to keep “a continuing watch on the progress of the various components, subsystems, and the whole spacecraft system during the different phases of designing, fabricating and testing them.”49 Frequent meetings would take place between Nelson and his staff and their counterparts at Boeing to discuss all critical matters, but Langley would not assign all the jobs, solve all the problems, or micromanage every detail of the contractor’s work.
This philosophy sat well with Robert J. Helberg, head of Boeing’s Lunar Orbiter team. Helberg had recently finished directing the company’s work on the Bomarc missile, making him a natural choice for manager of Boeing’s next space venture. The Swedish-born Helberg was absolutely straightforward, and all his people respected him immensely -as would everyone in LOPO. He and fellow Swede Cliff Nelson got along famously. Their relaxed relationship set the tone for interaction between Langley and Boeing. Ideas and concerns passed freely back and forth between the project offices. Nelson and his people “never had to fear the contractor was just telling [them] a lie to make money,” and Helberg and his tightly knit, 220-member Lunar Orbiter team never had to complain about uncaring, papershuffling bureaucrats who were mainly interested in dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s and making sure that nothing illegal was done that could bother government auditors and put their necks in a wringer.50
The Langley/NASA headquarters relationship was also harmonious and effective. This was in sharp contrast to the relationship between JPL and headquarters during the Surveyor project. Initially, JPL had tried to monitor the Surveyor contractor, Hughes, with only a small staff that provided little on-site technical direction; however, because of unclear objectives, the open-ended nature of the project (such basic things as which experiment packages would be included on the Surveyor spacecraft were uncertain), and a too highly diffused project organization within Hughes, JPL’s “laissez-faire” approach to project management did not work. As the problems snowballed, Cortright found it necessary to intervene and compelled JPL to assign a regiment of on-site supervisors to watch over every detail of the work being done by Hughes. Thus, as one analyst of Surveyor’s management has observed, “the responsibility for overall spacecraft development was gradually retrieved from Hughes by JPL, thereby altering significantly the respective roles of the field center and the spacecraft systems contractors.”51
Nothing so unfortunate happened during Lunar Orbiter, partly because NASA had learned from the false steps and outright mistakes made in the management of Surveyor. For example, NASA now knew that before implementing a project, everyone involved must take part in extensive [336] preliminary discussions. These conversations ensured that the project’s goals were certain and each party’s responsibilities clear. Each office should expect maximum cooperation and minimal unnecessary interference from the others. Before Lunar Orbiter was under way, this excellent groundwork had been laid.
As has been suggested by a 1972 study done by the National Academy of Public Administration, the Lunar Orbiter project can serve as a model of the ideal relationship between a prime contractor, a project office, a field center, a program office, and headquarters. From start to finish nearly everything important about the interrelationship worked out superbly in Lunar Orbiter. According to LOPO’s Israel Taback, “Everyone worked together harmoniously as a team whether they were government, from headquarters or from Langley, or from Boeing.” No one tried to take advantage of rank or to exert any undue authority because of an official title or organizational affiliation.52 That is not to say that problems never occurred in the management of Lunar Orbiter. In any large and complex technological project involving several parties, some conflicts are bound to arise. The key to project success lies in how differences are resolved.

The “Concentrated” versus the “Distributed” Mission

The most fundamental issue in the premission planning for Lunar Orbiter was how the moon was to be photographed. Would the photography be “concentrated” on a predetermined single target, or would it be “distributed” over several selected targets across the moon’s surface? On the answer to this basic question depended the successful integration of the entire mission plan for Lunar Orbiter.
For Lunar Orbiter, as with any other spaceflight program, mission planning involved the establishment of a complicated sequence of events: When should the spacecraft be launched? When does the launch window open and close? On what trajectory should the spacecraft arrive in lunar orbit? How long will it take the spacecraft to get to the moon? How and when should orbital “injection” take place? How and when should the spacecraft get to its target(s), and at what altitude above the lunar surface should it take the pictures? Where does the spacecraft need to be relative to the sun for taking optimal pictures of the lunar surface? Answering these questions also meant that NASA’s mission planners had to define the lunar orbits, determine how accurately those orbits could be navigated, and know the fuel requirements. The complete mission profile had to be ready months before launch. And before the critical details of the profile could be made ready, NASA had to select the targeted areas on the lunar surface and decide how many of them were to be photographed during the flight of a single orbiter.53
Originally NASA’s plan was to conduct a concentrated mission. The Lunar Orbiter would go up and target a single site of limited dimensions.


Top NASA officials listen to a LOPO briefing at Langley in December 1966. Sitting to the far right with his hand on his chin is Floyd Thompson. To the left sits Dr. George Mueller, NASA associate administrator for Manned Space Flight. On the wall is a diagram of the sites selected for the “concentrated mission. ” The chart below illustrates the primary area of photographic interest.

[338] The country’s leading astrogeologists would help in the site selection by identifying the smoothest, most attractive possibilities for a manned lunar landing. The U.S. Geological Survey had drawn huge, detailed maps of the lunar surface from the best available telescopic observations. With these maps, NASA would select one site as the prime target for each of the five Lunar Orbiter missions. During a mission, the spacecraft would travel into orbit and move over the target at the “perilune,” or lowest point in the orbit (approximately 50 kilometers [31.1 miles] above the surface); then it would start taking pictures. Successive orbits would be close together longitudinally, and the Lunar Orbiter’s camera would resume photographing the surface each time it passed over the site. The high-resolution lens would take a 1-meter-resolution picture of a small area (4 x 16 kilometers) while at exactly the same time, the medium-resolution lens would take an 8-meter resolution picture of a wider area (32 x 37 kilometers). The high-resolution lens would photograph at such a rapid interval that the pictures would just barely overlap. The wide-angle pictures, taken by the medium-resolution lens, would have a conveniently wide overlap. All the camera exposures would take place in 24 hours, thus minimizing the threat to the film from a solar flare. The camera’s capacity of roughly 200 photographic frames would be devoted to one location. The result would be one area shot in adjacent, overlapping strips. By putting the strips together, NASA had a picture of a central 1-meter-resolution area that was surrounded by a broader 8-meter resolution area -in other words, it would be one large, rich stereoscopic picture of a choice lunar landing site. NASA would learn much about that one ideal place, and the Apollo program would be well served.54
The plan sounded fine to everyone at least in the beginning. Langley’s Request for Proposals had specified the concentrated mission, and Boeing had submitted the winning proposal based on that mission plan. Moreover, intensive, short-term photography like that called for in a concentrated mission was exactly what Eastman Kodak’s high-resolution camera system had been designed for. The camera was a derivative of a spy satellite photo system created specifically for earth reconnaissance missions specified by the DOD.***
[339] As LOPO’s mission planners gave the plan more thought, however, they realized that the concentrated mission approach was flawed. Norman Crabill, Langley’s head of mission integration for Lunar Orbiter, remembers the question he began to ask himself, “What happens if only one of these missions is going to work? This was in the era of Ranger failures and Surveyor slippage. When you shoot something, you had only a twenty percent probability that it was going to work. It was that bad.” On that premise, NASA planned to fly five Lunar Orbiters, hoping that one would operate as it should. “Suppose we go up there and shoot all we [have] on one site, and it turns out to be no good?” fretted Crabill, and others began to worry as well. What if that site was not as smooth as it appeared on the U.S. Geological Survey maps, or a gravitational anomaly or orbital perturbation was present, making that particular area of the moon unsafe for a lunar lauding? And what if that Lunar Orbiter turned out to be the only one to work? What then?55
In late 1964, over the course of several weeks, LOPO became more convinced that it should not be putting all its eggs in one basket. “We developed the philosophy that we really didn’t want to do the concentrated mission; what we really wanted to do was what we called the ‘distributed mission,”‘ recalls Crabill. The advantage of the distributed mission was that it would enable NASA to inspect several choice targets in the Apollo landing zone with only one spacecraft.56
In early 1965, Norm Crabill and Tom Young of the LOPO mission integration team traveled to the office of the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Arizona. There, the Langley engineers consulted with U.S. government astrogeologists John F. McCauley, Lawrence Rowan, and Harold Masursky. Jack McCauley was Flagstaff’s top man at the time, but he assigned Larry Rowan, “a young and upcoming guy, very reasonable and very knowledgeable,” the job of heading the Flagstaff review of the Lunar Orbiter site selection problem. “We sat down with Rowan at a table with these big lunar charts,” and Rowan politely reminded the Langley duo that “the dark areas on the moon were the smoothest.” Rowan then pointed to the darkest places across the entire face of the moon.57
Rowan identified 10 good targets. When Crabill and Young made orbital calculations, they became excited. In a few moments, they had realized that they wanted to do the distributed mission. Rowan and his colleagues in Flagstaff also became excited about the prospects. This was undoubtedly the way to catch as many landing sites as possible. The entire Apollo zone of interest was ±45° longitude and ±5° latitude, along the equatorial region of the facing, or near side of the moon. Within that zone, the area that could be photographed via a concentrated mission was small. A single Lunar Orbiter that could photograph 10 sites of that size all within that region would be much more effective. If the data showed that a site chosen by the astrogeologists was not suitable, NASA would have excellent photographic coverage of nine other prime sites. In summary, the distributed mode would….


Lunar Orbiter’s “Typical Flight Sequence of Events” turned out to be quite typical indeed, as all five spacecraft performed exactly as planned.

…..give NASA the flexibility to ensure that Lunar Orbiter would provide the landing site information needed by Apollo even if only one Lunar Orbiter mission proved successful.
But there was one big hitch: Eastman Kodak’s photo system was not designed for the distributed mission. It was designed for the concentrated mission in which all the photography would involve just one site and be loaded, shot, and developed in 24 hours. If Lunar Orbiter must photograph 10 sites, a mission would last at least two weeks. The film system was designed to sustain operations for only a day or two; if the mission lasted longer than that, the Bimat film would stick together, the exposed parts of it would dry out, the film would get stuck in the loops, and the photographic mission would be completely ruined.
When Boeing first heard that NASA had changed its mind and now wanted to do the distributed mission, Helberg and his men balked. According to LOPO’s Norman Crabill, Boeing’s representatives said, “Look, we understand you want to do this. But, wait. The system was designed, tested, used, and proven in the concentrated mission mode. You can’t change it [341] now because it wasn’t designed to have the Bimat film in contact for long periods of time. In two weeks’ time, some of the Bimat is just going to go, pfft! It’s just going to fail!” Boeing understood the good sense of the distributed mission, but as the prime contractor, the company faced a classic technological dilemma. The customer, NASA, wanted to use the system to do something it was not designed to do. This could possibly cause a disastrous failure. Boeing had no recourse but to advise the customer that what it wanted to do could endanger the entire mission.58
The Langley engineers wanted to know whether Boeing could solve the film problem. “We don’t know for sure,” the Boeing staff replied, “and we don’t have the time to find out.” NASA suggested that Boeing conduct tests to obtain quantitative data that would define the limits of the film system. Boeing’s response was “That’s not in the contract.”59 The legal documents specified that the Lunar Orbiter should have the capacity to conduct the concentrated mission. If NASA now wanted to change the requirements for developing the Orbiter, then a new contract would have to be negotiated. A stalemate resulted on this issue and lasted until early 1965. The first launch was only a year away.
If LOPO hoped to persuade Boeing to accept the idea of changing a basic mission requirement, it had to know the difference in reliability between the distributed and concentrated missions. If analysis showed that the distributed mission would be far less reliable, then even LOPO might want to reconsider and proceed with the concentrated mission. Crabill gave the job of obtaining this information to Tom Young, a young researcher from the Applied Materials and Physics Division. Crabill had specifically requested that Young be reassigned to LOPO mission integration because, in his opinion, Young was “the brightest guy [he] knew.” On the day Young had reported to work with LOPO, Crabill had given him “a big pile of stuff to read,” thinking he would be busy and, as Crabill puts it, “out of my hair for quite a while.” But two days later, Young returned, having already made his way through all the material. When given the job of the comparative mission reliability analysis, Young went to Boeing in Seattle. In less than two weeks, he found what he needed to know and figured out the percentages: the reliability for the concentrated mission was an unspectacular 60 percent, but for the distributed mission it was only slightly worse, 58 percent. “It was an insignificant difference,” Crabill thought when he heard Young’s numbers, especially because nobody then really knew how to do that type of analysis. “We didn’t gag on the fact that it was pretty low anyway, but we really wanted to do this distributed mission.” The Langley researchers decided that the distributed mission was a sensible choice, if the Kodak system could be made to last for the extra time and if Boeing could be persuaded to go along with the mission change.60
LOPO hoped that Young’s analysis would prove to Boeing that no essential difference in reliability existed between the two types of missions, but Boeing continued to insist that the concentrated mission was the legal [342] requirement, not the distributed mission. The dispute was a classic case of implementing a project before even the customer was completely sure of what that project should accomplish. In such a situation, the only sensible thing to do was to be flexible.
The problem for Boeing, of course, was that such flexibility might cost the company its financial incentives. If a Lunar Orbiter mission failed, the company worried that it would not be paid the bonus money promised in the contract. Helberg and Nelson discussed this issue in private conversations. Floyd Thompson participated in many of these talks and even visited Seattle to try to facilitate an agreement. In the end, Langley convinced Helberg that the change from a concentrated to a distributed mission would not impact Boeing’s incentives. If a mission failed because of the change, LOPO promised that it would assume the responsibility. Boeing would have done its best according to the government request and instructions -and for that they would not be penalized. 61
The missions, however, would not fail. NASA and Boeing would handle the technical problems involving the camera by testing the system to ascertain the definite limits of its reliable operation. From Kodak, the government and the prime contractor obtained hard data regarding the length of time the film could remain set in one place before the curls or bends in the film around the loops became permanent and the torque required to advance the film exceeded the capability of the motor. From these tests, Boeing and LOPO established a set of mission “rules” that had to be followed precisely. For example, to keep the system working, Lunar Orbiter mission controllers at JPL had to advance the film one frame every eight hours. The rules even required that film sometimes be advanced without opening the door of the camera lens. Mission controllers called these nonexposure shots their “film-set frames” and the schedule of photographs their “film budget.”62
As a result of the film rules, the distributed mission turned out to be a much busier operation than a concentrated mission would have been. Each time a photograph was taken, including film-set frames, the spacecraft had to be maneuvered. Each maneuver required a command from mission control. LOPO staff worried about the ability of the spacecraft to execute so many maneuvers over such a prolonged period. They feared something would go wrong during a maneuver that would cause them to lose control of the spacecraft. Lunar Orbiter 1, however, flawlessly executed an astounding number of commands, and LOPO staff were able to control spacecraft attitude during all 374 maneuvers.63
Ultimately, the trust between Langley and Boeing allowed each to take the risk of changing to a distributed mission. Boeing trusted Langley to assume responsibility if the mission failed, and Langley trusted Boeing to put its best effort into making the revised plan a success. Had either not fulfilled its promise to the other, Lunar Orbiter would not have achieved its outstanding record.


Lunar Orbiter with labeled components.

Simple as this diagram of Lunar Orbiter (left) may look, no spacecraft in NASA history operated more successfully than Lunar Orbiter. Below, Lunar Orbiter goes I through a final inspection in the NASA Hanger S clean room at Kennedy Space Center prior to launch on 10 August 1966. The spacecraft was mounted on a three-axis test stand with its solar panels deployed and high-gain dish antenna extended from the side.


Lunar Orbiter I lifts off from Cape Kennedy on 10 August 1966. With a payload weighing only 860 pounds, the spacecraft was light enough to fly on an Atlas-Agena instead of the more expensive Atlas-Centaur.

“The Picture of the Century”

The switch to the distributed mission was not the only instance during the Lunar Orbiter mission when contract specifications were jettisoned to pursue a promising idea. Boeing engineers realized that the Lunar Orbiter project presented a unique opportunity for photographing the earth. When the LOPO staff heard this idea, they were all for it, but Helberg and Boeing management rejected the plan. Turning the spacecraft around so that its camera could catch a quick view of the earth tangential to the moon’s surface entailed technical difficulties, including the danger that, once the spacecraft’s orientation was changed, mission controllers could lose command of the spacecraft. Despite the risk, NASA urged Boeing to incorporate the maneuver in the mission plan for Lunar Orbiter 1. Helberg refused.64
In some projects, that might have been the end of the matter. People would have been forced to forget the idea and to live within the circumscribed world of what had been legally agreed upon. Langley, however, was not about to give up on this exciting opportunity. Cliff Nelson,….


With “the picture of the century” proudly displayed before them, key members of the LOPO team report the success of Lunar Orbiter I at a press conference in August 1966. Left to right are Oran W. Nicks, director of Lunar and Planetary Programs at NASA headquarters; Floyd Thompson; Cliff Nelson; and Isadore G Recant, the Langley scientist in charge of data handling for the spacecraft. At the podium is the U.S. Geological Survey’s Dr. Larry Rowan, the young geologist who helped LOPO identify the most promising landing sites. L-66-7999.

…..Floyd Thompson, and Lee Scherer went to mission control at JPL to talk to Helberg and at last convinced him that he was being too cautious -that “the picture was worth the risk.” If any mishap occurred with the spacecraft during the maneuver, NASA again promised that Boeing would still receive compensation and part of its incentive for taking the risk. The enthusiasm of his own staff for the undertaking also influenced Helberg in his final decision to take the picture. 65
On 23 August 1966 just ad Lunar Orbiter l was about to pass behind the moon, mission controllers executed the necessary maneuvers to point the camera away from the lunar surface and toward the earth. The result was the world’s first view of the earth from space. It was called “the picture of the century” and “the greatest shot taken since the invention of photography.”****
[346] Not even the color photos of the earth taken during the Apollo missions superseded the impact of this first image of our planet as a little island of life floating in the black and infinite sea of space. 66

Mission More Than Accomplished

Lunar Orbiter defied all the probability studies. All five missions worked extraordinarily well, and with the minor exception of a short delay in the launch of Lunar Orbiter I -the Eastman Kodak camera was not ready – all the missions were on schedule. The launches were three months apart with the first taking place in August 1966 and the last in August 1967. This virtually perfect flight record was a remarkable achievement, especially considering that Langley had never before managed any sort of flight program into deep space.
Lunar Orbiter accomplished what it was designed to do, and more. Its camera took 1654 photographs. More than half of these (840) were of the proposed Apollo landing sites. Lunar Orbiters I, II, and III took these site pictures from low-flight altitudes, thereby providing detailed coverage of 22 select areas along the equatorial region of the near side of the moon. One of the eight sites scrutinized by Lunar Orbiters II and III was a very smooth area in the Sea of Tranquility. A few years later, in July 1969, Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong would navigate the lunar module Eagle to a landing on this site.67
By the end of the third Lunar Orbiter mission, all the photographs needed to cover the Apollo landing sites had been taken. NASA was then free to redesign the last two missions, move away from the pressing engineering objective imposed by Apollo, and go on to explore other regions of the moon for the benefit of science. Eight hundred and eight of the remaining 814 pictures returned by Lunar Orbiters IV and V focused on the rest of the near side, the polar regions, and the mysterious far side of the moon. These were not the first photographs of the “dark side”; a Soviet space probe, Zond III, had taken pictures of it during a fly-by into a solar orbit a year earlier, in July 1965. But the Lunar Orbiter photos were higher quality than the Russian pictures and illuminated some lunarscapes that had never before been seen by the human eye. The six remaining photos were of the spectacular look back at the distant earth. By the time all the photos were taken, about 99 percent of the moon’s surface had been covered.
When each Lunar Orbiter completed its photographic mission, the spacecraft continued its flight to gather clues to the nature of the lunar gravitational environment. NASA found these clues valuable in the planning of the Apollo flights. Telemetry data clearly indicated that the moon’s gravitational pull was not uniform. The slight dips in the path of the Lunar Orbiters as they passed over certain areas of the moon’s surface were caused by gravitational perturbations, which in turn were caused by the mascons.


The dark side of the moon.

Lunar Orbiter V provided the first wide-angle view of the moon’s mysterious “dark side. ”


The lunar surface, Copernicus crater.

One of the most spectacular mosaics produced by Lunar Orbiter II was this close-up of the enormous crater Copernicus with its 300-meter-high (984.3 feet) mountains rising from the crater floor. On the horizon are the Carpathian mountains with the 920-meter-high (3018.4 feet) Guy-Lussac Promontory. L-66 9788.

The extended missions of the Lunar Orbiters also helped to confirm that radiation levels near the moon were quite low and posed no danger to astronauts unless a major solar flare occurred while they were exposed on the lunar surface. A few months after each Lunar Orbiter mission, NASA deliberately crashed the spacecraft into the lunar surface to study lunar impacts and their seismic consequences. Destroying the spacecraft before it deteriorated and mission controllers had lost command of it ensured that it would not wander into the path of some future mission.68
Whether the Apollo landings could have been made successfully without the photographs from Lunar Orbiter is a difficult question to answer. Without the photos, the manned landings could certainly still have been attempted. In addition to the photographic maps drawn from telescopic observation, engineers could use some good pictures taken from Ranger and Surveyor to guide them. However, the detailed photographic coverage of 22 possible landing sites definitely made NASA’s final selection of ideal sites much easier and the pinpointing of landing spots possible.


The lunar surface, Tycho crater.

In August 1967, Lunar Orbiter V photographed the 90-kilometer-wide (55.9 miles) Tycho crater, one of the brightest craters seen from earth. A young impact crater, Tycho reveals its central peak, rough floor, and precipitous walls. L-67-4023.

Furthermore, Lunar Orbiter also contributed important photometric information that proved vital to the Apollo program. Photometry involves the science of measuring the intensity of light. Lunar Orbiter planners had to decide where to position the camera to have the best light for taking the high-resolution photographs. When we take pictures on earth, we normally want to have the sun behind us so it is shining directly on the target. But a photo taken of the lunar surface in these same circumstances produces a peculiar photometric function: the moon looks flat. Even minor topographical features are indistinguishable because of the intensity of the reflecting sunlight from the micrometeorite filled lunar surface. The engineers in LOPO had to determine the best position for photographing the moon. After studying the problem (Taback, Crabill, and Young led the attack on this problem), LOPO’s answer was that the sun should indeed be behind the spacecraft, but photographs should be taken when the sun was only 15 degrees above the horizon. 69
Long before it was time for the first Apollo launch, LOPO’s handling of the lunar photometric function was common knowledge throughout NASA [350] and the aerospace industry. The BellComm scientists and engineers who reviewed Apollo planning quickly realized that astronauts approaching the moon to make a landing needed, like Lunar Orbiter, to be in the best position for viewing the moon’s topography. Although a computer program would pinpoint the Apollo landing site, the computer’s choice might not be suitable. If that was the case, astronauts would have to rely on their own eyes to choose a spot. If the sun was in the wrong position, they would not make out craters and boulders, the surface would appear deceptively flat, and the choice might be disastrous. Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong did not like the spot picked by the computer for the Eagle landing. Because NASA had planned for him to be in the best viewing position relative to the sun, Armstrong could see that the place was “littered with boulders the size of Volkswagons.” So he flew on. He had to go another 1500 meters before he saw a spot where he could set the lunar module down safely.70
NASA might have considered the special photometric functions involved in viewing the moon during Apollo missions without Lunar Orbiter, but the experience of the Lunar Orbiter missions took the guesswork out of the calculations. NASA knew that its astronauts would be able to see what they needed to see to avoid surface hazards. This is a little-known but important contribution from Lunar Orbiter.

Secrets of Success

In the early 1970s Erasmus H. Kloman, a senior research associate with the National Academy of Public Administration, completed an extensive comparative investigation of NASA’s handling of its Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter projects. After a lengthy review, NASA published a shortened and distilled version of Kloman’s larger study as Unmanned Space Project Management: Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter. The result even in the expurgated version, with all names of responsible individuals left out -was a penetrating study in “sharp contrasts” that should be required reading for every project manager in business, industry, or government.
Based on his analysis of Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter, Kloman concluded that project management has no secrets of success. The key elements are enthusiasm for the project, a clear understanding of the project’s objective, and supportive and flexible interpersonal and interoffice relationships. The history of Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter, Kloman wrote, “serves primarily as a confirmation of old truths about the so-called basic principles of management rather than a revelation of new ones.” Kloman writes that Langley achieved Lunar Orbiter’s objectives by “playing it by the book.” By this, Kloman meant that Langley applied those simple precepts of good management; he did not mean that success was achieved through a thoughtless and strict formula for success. Kloman understood that Langley’s project engineers broke many rules and often improvised as they went along. Enthusiasm, understanding, support, and flexibility [351] allowed project staff to adapt the mission to new information, ideas, or circumstances. “Whereas the Surveyor lessons include many illustrations of how ‘not to’ set out on a project or how to correct for early misdirections,” Kloman argued, “Lunar Orbiter shows how good sound precepts and directions from the beginning can keep a project on track.”71
Lunar Orbiter, however, owes much of its success to Surveyor. LOPO staff were able to learn from the mistakes made in the Surveyor project. NASA headquarters was responsible for some of these mistakes. The complexity of Surveyor was underestimated, unrealistic manpower and financial ceilings were imposed, an “unreasonably open-ended combination of scientific experiments for the payload” was insisted upon for too long, too many changes in the scope and objectives of the project were made, and the project was tied to the unreliable Centaur launch vehicle.72 NASA headquarters corrected these mistakes. In addition, Langley representatives learned from JPL’s mistakes and problems. They talked at great length to JPL staff in Pasadena about Surveyor both before and after accepting the responsibility for Lunar Orbiter. From these conversations, Langley acquired a great deal of knowledge about the design and management of an unmanned space mission. JPL scientists and engineers even conducted an informal “space school” that helped to educate several members of LOPO and Boeing’s team about key details of space mission design and operations.
The interpersonal skills of the individuals responsible for Lunar Orbiter, however, appear to have been the essential key to success. These skills centered more on the ability to work with other people than they did on what one might presume to be the more critical and esoteric managerial, conceptual. and technical abilities. In Kloman’s words, “individual personal qualities and management capabilities can at times be a determining influence in overall project performance.”73 Compatibility among individual managers. Nelson and Helberg, and the ability of those managers to stimulate good working relationships between people proved a winning combination for Lunar Orbiter.
Norman Crabill made these comments about Lunar Orbiter’s management: “We had some people who weren’t afraid to use their own judgment instead of relying on rules. These people could think and find the essence of a problem, either by discovering the solution themselves or energizing the troops to come up with an alternative which would work. They were absolute naturals at that job.”74
Lunar Orbiter was a pathfinder for Apollo, and it was an outstanding contribution by Langley Research Center to the early space program. The old NACA aeronautics laboratory proved not only that it could handle a major deep space mission, but also that it could achieve an extraordinary record of success that matched or surpassed anything yet tried by NASA. When the project ended and LOPO members went back into functional research divisions, Langley possessed a pool of experienced individuals who were ready, if the time came, to plan and manage yet another major…


The <<Whole Earth>> as photographed by Lunar Orbiter V.

Although most people have come to associate the first picture of the “Whole Earth” with the Apollo program, Lunar Orbiter V actually captured this awesome view of the home planet. When this picture was taken on 8 August 1967, the spacecraft was about 5860 kilometers (3641.2 miles) above the moon in near polar orbit, so that the lunar surface is not seen. Clearly visible on the left side of the globe is the eastern half of Africa and the entire Arabian peninsula. L-67-6777.

[353] …..project. That opportunity came quickly in the late 1960s with the inception of Viking, a much more complicated and challenging project designed to send unmanned reconnaissance orbiters and landing probes to Mars. When Viking was approved, NASA headquarters assigned the project to “those plumbers” at Langley. The old LOPO team formed the nucleus of Langley’s much larger Viking Project Office. With this team, Langley would once again manage a project that would be virtually an unqualified success.
* Later in Apollo planning, engineers at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston thought that deployment of a penetrometer from the LEM during its final approach to landing would prove useful. The penetrometer would “sound” the anticipated target and thereby determine whether surface conditions were conducive to landing. Should surface conditions prove unsatisfactory, the LEM could be flown to another spot or the landing could be aborted. In the end, NASA deemed the experiment unnecessary. What the Surveyor missions found out about the nature of the lunar soil (that it resembled basalt and had the consistency of damp sand) made NASA so confident about the hardness of the surface that it decided this penetrometer experiment could be deleted. For more information, see Ivan D. Ertel and Roland W. Newkirk, The Apollo Spacecraft: A Chronology, vol. 4, NASA SP-4009 (Washington, 1978), p. 24
** Edgar Cortright and Oran Nicks would come to have more than a passing familiarity with the capabilities of Langley Research Center. In 1968, NASA would name Cortright to succeed Thompson as the center’s director. Shortly thereafter, Cortright named Nicks as his deputy director. Both men then stayed at the center into the mid-1970s.
*** in the top-secret DOD system, the camera with the film inside apparently would reenter the atmosphere inside a heat-shielded package that parachuted down, was hooked, and was physically retrieved in midair (if all went as planned) by a specially equipped U.S. Air Force C-119 cargo airplane. It was obviously a very unsatisfactory system, but in the days before advanced electronic systems, it was the best high-resolution satellite reconnaissance system that modern technology could provide. Few NASA people were ever privy to many of the details of how the “black box” actually worked, because they did not have “the need to know.” However, they figured that it had been designed, as one LOPO engineer has described in much oversimplified layman’s terms, “so when a commander said, ‘we’ve got the target’, bop, take your snapshots, zap, zap, zap, get it down from orbit, retrieve it and bring it home, rush it off to Kodak, and get your pictures.”, (Norman Crabill interview with author, Hampton, Va., 28 August 1991.)
**** The unprecedented photo also provided the first oblique perspectives of the lunar surface. All other photographs taken during the first mission were shot from a position perpendicular to the surface and thus, did not depict the moon in three dimensions. In subsequent missions, NASA made sure to include this sort of oblique photography. Following the first mission, Boeing prepared a booklet entitled Lunar Orbiter I -Photography (NASA Langley, 1965), which gave a detailed technical description of the earth-moon photographs; see especially pp. 64-71.
1. See R. Cargill Hall, Lunar Impact: A History of Project Ranger, NASA SP-4210 (Washington, 1977), p. 285, and Michael Collins, Liftoff: The Story of America’s Adventure in Space (New York: NASA/Grove Press, 1988), p. 117.
2. Leonard Roberts, “Exhaust Jet-Dust Layer Interaction during a Lunar Landing,” unclassified report presented at the 13th International Aeronautical Congress, Varna, Bulgaria, 24-28 Sept. 1962; “The Interaction of a Rocket Exhaust with the Lunar Surface,” unclassified report presented at the Specialists’ Meeting of the Fluid Dynamical Aspects of Space Flight, Marseilles, France, 20-24 Apr. 1964. Copies of both papers are in the Langley Technical Library.
3. See Hall’s comprehensive and well told, Lunar Impact.
4. A complete history of the Surveyor program has not been published. In addition to Hall’s Lunar Impact, see Homer E. Newell, Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science, NASA SP-4211 (Washington, 1980), pp. 263-272. A fine summary of Surveyor is contained in Linda Neuman Ezell, NASA Historical Data Book, vol. 2, Programs and Projects 1958-1968, NASA SP-4012 (Washington, 1988), pp. 325-331. For an analysis of NASA’s problems in the management of the Surveyor project, see Erasmus H. Kloman, Unmanned Space Project Management: Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter, NASA SP-4901 (Washington, 1972).
5. The chairman of this Lunar Photographic Mission Study Group was Capt. Lee R. Scherer, a naval officer on assignment to NASA headquarters and a program engineer with the Surveyor project. In Oct. 1962, NASA gave him the job of heading the Office of Space Sciences/Office of Manned Space Flight working group, which was to identify what information about the moon would be most essential to the landing mission. See Scherer, Study of Agena-based Lunar Orbiters, NASA headquarters, Office of Space Sciences, 25 Oct. 1962, copy in Langley Technical Library. See also Bruce K. Byers, Destination Moon: A History of the Lunar Orbiter Program, NASA TM X-3487 (Washington, 1977, multilith), pp. 20-23. Byers’ study is the most complete history to date of Lunar Orbiter.
6. Kloman, Unmanned Space Project Management.
7. Clinton E. Brown interview with author, Hampton, Va., 17 July 1989. Brown acted as Langley’s spokesman in early discussions at NASA headquarters in 1963 regarding Langley’s proposed management of the Lunar Orbiter program.
8. Hall, Lunar Impact, p. 157.
9. “NASA Minutes of the First Senior Council for the Office of Space Sciences,” 7 June 1962, E1-2A, LCF. Also quoted in Hall, Lunar Impact, p. 157.
10. Penetrometer Feasibility Study Group, Langley Research Center, “Preliminary Project Development Plan for a Lunar Penetrometer Experiment for the Follow-On Ranger Pro gram,” 18 Aug. 1961, Code N-101,24218, Langley Technical Library. See also the following memoranda: E. M. Cortright (for Abe Silverstein, director of Space Flight Programs), to Ira H. Abbott, director of Advanced Research Programs, “Lunar Surface Hardness Experiments:” 29 June 1961; E. C. Kilgore, assistant chief, Engineering Division, to Charles J. Donlan, associate director, “Meeting at Jet Propulsion Laboratory on July 18, 1961, attended by representatives of Langley Research Center, Aeronutronics Division of Ford Motor Company, NASA Headquarters, and JPL, to discuss a penetrometer experiment for the follow-on Ranger program,” 21 July 1961; John L. McCarty and George W. Brooks, “Visit to NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C., by George W. Brooks and John L. McCarty, Vibration and Dynamics Section, DLD [Dynamic Loads Division], June 28, 1961, to discuss possible Lunar Penetrometer Experiment on Ranger Spacecraft,” 7 July 1961; Floyd L. Thompson to NASA headquarters, “Lunar surface hardness experiments,” 27 July 1961; and George W. Brooks to Associate Director Charles J. Donlan, “Langley action on lunar penetrometer experiment for Ranger follow-on program,” 27 July 1961. All these memos are in LCF, A200 1B.
11. See John L. McCarty and Huey D. Carden, “Impact Characteristics of Various Materials Obtained by an Acceleration-Time-History Technique Applicable to Evaluating Remote Targets,” NASA TN D-1269, June 1962.
12. Penetrometer Feasibility Study Group, “Preliminary Project Development Plan for a Lunar Penetrometer Experiment,” p. 1.
13. Kilgore to Donlan, “Meeting at Jet Propulsion Laboratory.”
14. Hall, Lunar Impact, p. 158.
15. Ibid., pp. 156-163.
16. Oran Nicks quoted in Byers, Destination Moon, p. 26.
17. Floyd L. Thompson to Dr. Eugene Emme, NASA historian, “Comments on draft of Lunar Orbiter History dated November 4, 1969,” 22 Dec. 1969, in folder labeled “Lunar Orbiter Historical Notes” in Floyd L. Thompson Collection, LHA. See also Byers, Destination Moon, p. 25.
18. Clinton E. Brown interview, 17 July 1989.
19. Ibid. On 12 July 1961, six weeks after President Kennedy’s lunar landing speech, three men in Clint Brown’s Theoretical Mechanics Division – William H. Michael, Jr., Robert H. Tolson, and John P. Gapcynski – put forward a “Preliminary Proposal for a Circumlunar Photographic Experiment.” The idea essentially was to support the Apollo program by adapting the Ranger spacecraft so that it could perform a circumlunar mission that could take high-resolution color photographs during the lunar-approach phase of a “single-pass,” circumlunar trajectory. In the cover memorandum to this unpublished proposal, one of its authors, Bill Michael, wrote that “a desirable situation would be that of Langley having prime responsibility for the photographic experiment, in a role similar to that of chief experimenter in other specific experiments carried by the Ranger and other vehicles.” See William H. Michael, Jr, head, Mission Analysis Section, to Langley Associate Director Charles J. Donlan, “Preliminary Proposal for a Circumlunar Photographic Mission,” 17 July 1961. See a so C. I. Cummings, Lunar Program Director, JPL, to Bernard Maggin, Office of Programs, NASA headquarters, 9 Nov. 1961, and Maggin to Clinton E. Brown, 14 Nov. 1961. Copies of the above documents are in LCF, A200-1B.
20. Israel Taback interview with author, Hampton, Va., 13 Aug. 1991.
21. Floyd L. Thompson to NASA headquarters (Attn: Capt. Lee Scherer), 6 Mar. 1963, A200 -1B, LCF. Attached to this memo is a “system block diagram” for the Lunar Orbiter as well as the data from the mission reliability analysis.
22. On the genesis of NASA’s system for project management, see Robert L. Rosholt, An Administrative History of NASA, 1958-1963, NASA SP-4101 (Washington, 1966), pp. 145-158 and 273-276.
23. NASA Management Manual, pt. 1, General Management Instruction, Number 4-1-1, “Subject: Planning and Implementation of NASA Projects,” NASA GMI (Washington, 18 Jan. 1961), chap. 4, p. 4. See also Edgar M. Cortright interview with author, Yorktown, Va., July 1988, transcript, pp. 8-9, OHC, LHA.
24. Donald H. Ward, One Engineer’s Life Relived (Utica, Ky.: McDowell Publications, 1990), p. 61. Ward served as head of spacecraft launch operations for LOPO.
25. Taback interview, 13 Aug. 1991.
26. See Byers, Destination Moon, pp. 40-41.
27. See Dr. A. K. Thiel, STL, to Oran W. Nicks, director, Lunar and Planetary Programs, OSSA/NASA, Washington, D.C., 20 Sept. 1962, copy in Thompson Collection, LHA. See also Byers, Destination Moon, pp. 16 17.
28. See Byers, Destination Moon, pp. 43 44.
29. Interview with Sherwood Butler, Hampton, Va., 23 Aug. 1991. Butler was Langley’s chief procurement officer at the time. For an analysis of the benefits of incentives contracting for Lunar Orbiter, see Kloman, Unmanned Space Project Management, pp. 34 36. See also Byers, Destination Moon, pp. 39-40. For a contemporary news story covering the details of the novel incentives contract for Lunar Orbiter, see Richard G. O’Lone, “Orbiter is First Big NASA Incentive Job,” Aviation Week & Space Technology 79 (7 Oct. 1963): 32.
30. Taback interview, 13 Aug. 1991.
31. See Byers, Destination Moon, pp. 40 47.
32. Ibid., pp. 43-44
33. Taback interview, 13 Aug. 1991; see Byers, Destination Moon, p. 56.
34. Byers, Destination Moon, pp. 57-70.
35. For the basics of the Lunar Orbiter camera system, see Leon J. Kosofsky and S. Calvin Broome, “Lunar Orbiter: A Photographic Satellite'” paper presented to the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, Los Angeles, 28 Mar.-2 Apr. 1965, copy in Langley Technical Library. Broome was head of the photo subsystem group in LOPO; Kosofsky was the camera expert in Lee Scherer’s office at NASA headquarters. For a more genera description of the photographic mission and the Eastman Kodak camera, see The Lunar Orbiter (revised Apr. 1966), a 38-page booklet prepared by Boeing’s Space Division and published by NASA Langley, esp. pp. 18-20 and 22-26, and The Lunar Orbiter: A Radio-Controlled Camera, a glitzy 14 page brochure that was published by NASA Langley with Boeing’s assistance after the Lunar Orbiter project had ended.
36. Kosofsky and Broome, “Lunar Orbiter: A Photographic Satellite.” See also Israel Taback, “A Description of the Lunar Orbiter Spacecraft,” reprinted in Highlights of Astronomy (Dordrecht, Netherlands: D. Reidel Publishing Co., 1968), p. 464. Taback presented this paper at the 13th General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in Prague, Czechoslovakia, 1967. At this meeting, renowned astronomers from all over the world took off their shoes and crawled around on the floor looking at a huge layout of photographs taken by the Lunar Orbiters.
37. Scherer, Study of Agena-based Lunar Orbiters; see Byers, Destination Moon, pp. 20 23.
38. Telephone interview with Thomas Costello of the Boeing Co., Colorado Springs, Colo., 15 Aug. 1961. Costello was an engineer with Boeing who worked on the company’s proposal for Lunar Orbiter and then served as one of its project engineers from 1963 to 1966.
39. See “Boeing to Build Lunar Orbiter,” Aviation Week & Space Technology 79 (30 Dec. 1963): 22; “NASA To Negotiate with Boeing for Lunar Orbiter Spacecraft,” NASA Langley Researcher, 2 June 1963; and “NASA Explains Choice of Boeing over Hughes in Lunar Orbiter Award,” Missiles and Rockets 14 (9 Mar. 1964): 13.
40. Dr. Trutz Foelsche, “Remarks on Doses Outside the Magnetosphere, and on Effects EspecialIy on Surfaces and Photographic Films,” paper presented at the Meeting to Discuss Charged Particle Effects, OART, 19-20 Mar. 1964, Washington, D.C., p. 8, copy in the Langley Technical Library.
41. Byers, Destination Moon, pp. 72-74.
42. See Lee R. Scherer, The Lunar Orbiter Photographic Missions, p. 2. This is a 20 page typescript booklet published by NASA Langley in late 1967.
43. Erasmus H. Kloman, “Organizational Framework: NASA and Langley Research Center,” p. 7. This is a chapter draft from Kloman’s comment copy of his subsequent Unmanned Space Project Management. In draft form, Kloman’s book contained many more details including the names of responsible individuals, which were omitted in the shortened version published by NASA. The author wishes to thank Thomas R. Costello, former engineer in the Boeing Lunar Orbiter project office, for making available a copy of Kloman’s comment edition.
44. The portraits of Cliff Nelson and James Martin are derived from statements made to the author by several people associated with LOPO.
45. Kloman, “Organizational Framework: NASA and Langley Research Center,” pp. 10-11.
46. Kloman, Unmanned Space Project Management, pp. 18-19 and 38.
47. Taback interview, 13 Aug. 1991.
48. Norman L. Crabill interview, Hampton, Va., 28 Aug. 1991.
49. Kloman, “Organizational Framework,” p. 9.
50. Taback interview, 13 Aug. 1991. See also the press release from News Bureau, the Boeing Co., Seattle, “Robert J. Helberg, Lunar Orbiter Program Manager,” 27 Sept. 1965.
51. Kloman, Unmanned Space Project Management, p. 25.
52. Taback interview, 13 Aug. 1991.
53. The author wishes to thank LOPO member Norman L. Crabill for his careful explanation of the mission planning for Lunar Orbiter. Crabill interview, 28 Aug. 1991. For a lengthy written account of mission planning in relation to the design of the Lunar Orbiter spacecraft system, see Thomas T. Yamauchi, the Boeing Co., and Israel Taback, NASA Langley, “The Lunar Orbiter System,” paper presented at the 6th International Symposium on Space Technology and Science, Tokyo, 1965, copy in the Langley Technical Library.
54. For the details about the evolution of the early mission plans for Lunar Orbiter, see Byers, Destination Moon, pp. 177-194.
55. Crabill interview, 28 Aug. 1991.
56. Ibid.
57. Ibid.
58. Ibid.
59. Ibid.
60. Ibid.; also see A. Thomas Young to Crabill, “Mission Reliability Analyses and Compari-son for the BellComm Mission and TBC’s S-110 Mission,” A200-1B, LCF.
61. By the end of the project, Boeing earned nearly an extra $2 million dollars in incentives. See Newport News (Va.) Daily Press, “Orbiter Incentive Award is $1.9 Million,” 28 Jan. 1967; “Lunar Orbiter Successes Earn Boeing $1,811,611,” 17 Nov. 1967; and “Lunar Success Pays Dividend for Boeing Co.,” 18 Nov. 1967.
62. Crabill interview, 28 Aug. 1991.
63. See L. C. Rowan, “Orbiter Observations of the Lunar Surface,” AAS (American Astronomical Society) Paper, 29 Dec. 1966; and L. R. Scherer and C. H. Nelson’ “The Preliminary Results from Lunar Orbiter I,” in Spacecraft Systems, vol. 1, lnternational Astronautical Federation’ 17th International Astronautical Congress, Madrid, Spain, 9 15 Oct. 1966.
64. See Byers, Destination Moon, pp. 241-243.
65. Taback interview, 13 Aug. 1991.
66. I have not been able to track down the exact source of the phrase, “the picture of the century,” which came to be used generally to describe the historic first picture of the earth from deep space. A number of journalists used it in the weeks following the release of the photographs taken by Lunar Orbiter 1. One might guess that a NASA public affairs officer invented it, but there is better reason to think that someone at Eastman Kodak coined the phrase. In January 1967, the company unveiled a rendition of the remarkable photograph on the huge Kodak Colorama inside Grand Central Station in New York City. The Kodak caption indeed called it “the picture of the century.” This phrase, however. was also used to describe other Lunar Orbiter photographs. For example, Boeing and NASA Langley used it in “The Lunar Orbiter/A Radio-Controlled Camera,” a brochure published in 1968 (copy in LHA, Ames Collection, box 6), not to caption the earth shot, but to dramatize a stereoscopic picture of the Copernicus crater (see p. 350 of this book). Veterans of the Lunar Orbiter project team at Langley remember the earth shot as “the real picture of the century,” however, partly because they know the story of how it almost did not get taken. See Langley Researcher News, “Reliving a Moment in History,” 6 Sept. 1991, p. 5.
67. See Lunar Orbiter Photo Data Screening Group, “Preliminary Geological Evaluation and Apollo Landing Analysis of Areas Photographed by Lunar Orbiter II,” LWP-363, Mar. 1967, copy in Milton Ames Collection, LHA.
68. Byers, Destination Moon, pp. 243-244.
69. Crabill interview, 28 Aug. 1991.
70. Collins, Liftoff, p. 8.
71. Kloman, Unmanned Space Project Management, p. 7.
72. Ibid., p. 33.
73. Ibid., p. 22.
74. Crabill interview, 28 Aug. 1991.