by Larry Klaes
[The Space Race continues to run at an ever-accelerating pace. To keep up with all the new developments, I’ve tapped my friend and fellow professional space historian to tell us a very special program that just might score for the United States in the next inning…]
President Kennedy declared three weeks ago before Congress that America shall make the bold step of “sending a man to the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” before the end of this decade. This has given a much needed – and quite literal – boost to the American space program.
It couldn’t have come at a better time. Since that day in October of 1957 when our geopolitical and space rivals, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR for short, lofted that 184-pound silvery sphere they called Sputnik 1 into Earth orbit, the Communists have handily outpaced us on virtually all key fronts of the Space Race. First animal in orbit. First man in orbit. First probe to Venus. First victories in the race to that big golden prize in our night sky, the Moon.
In one year alone, 1959, the Soviets sent the first space probe flying past the Moon and on into solar orbit. This was followed by the first manmade vehicle to impact another world, with their Luna 2 littering the lunar dust with pennants engraved with the Soviet Coat of Arms. The USSR rounded out their lunar triumphs of 1959 with a circumlunar imaging mission that revealed the hitherto unseen lunar farside.
So which Superpower will be the first to orbit the Moon? The first to land, with robots and then with manned spacecraft? Experts in various fields might understandably side with the Soviet Union, including those in the West. In a mission-by-mission comparison, America’s efforts at exploring and conquering the Moon pale.
All of the first three Air Force Pioneer lunar probes fell short of their celestial goal. Of the next two, made to order by Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena, California (JPL), Pioneer 4 alone escaped the confines of Earth’s gravity and headed into interplanetary space in March 1959. Unfortunately, the small conical craft was many thousands of miles too far away for its scientific instruments to examine the Moon and slipped on to join its Soviet counterpart, Luna 1, in solar orbit.
Then it was STL’s turn again with their advanced Atlas Able Pioneers. All four of them failed. Spectacularly.
And so, back to JPL. They have a new robotic lunar exploration program that they are confident will return some of NASA’s prestige in space and ensure that one day soon the Stars and Stripes will be standing tall on the lunar surface — before the Hammer and Sickle. Named Ranger, it is actually a three-step program of increasingly sophisticated species of spacecraft: what the space agency calls Blocks.
The two Block I machines will fly this year. Looking like an oil rig with two long solar panel “wings” at its base and a large high-gain directional dish antenna beneath, the first two Rangers will initially enter an Earth parking orbit and gradually be moved farther out into space until well beyond the Moon. There the controllers at JPL will put the probes through their paces to see how they handle the cislunar environment to improve upon the next blocks of Ranger missions. These won’t just be engineering flights; each Block I Ranger it will also fly a suite of scientific instruments.
Now, JPL thought these science Rangers were good enough to make good Venus probes, too. Their intention was to launch these modified Rangers using the Atlas-Agena B combination of rockets.
NASA rejected this plan, instead asking JPL to develop a more ambitious planetary probe labeled Mariner A, which would use an Atlas rocket with the powerful Liquid Oxygen Centaur second stage. The Centaur booster has a more powerful payload lifting capability, which translates into sending their Mariner A concept with more scientific instruments to either Venus or Mars.
However, the Centaur has had a number of technical issues during its development. There is genuine concern that the new booster will not be ready in time to send a probe to Venus during the 1962 launch window. A delay would mean waiting for the next launch window over two years hence. NASA officials and others are quite certain that the Soviets could have their own Venus probes on their way to the second world from the Sun by next year. A successful exploration of that planet would bring yet another space victory and political glory to the communist nation. Thus the Ranger bus option to flyby Venus and see what dwells under its mysterious bank of clouds remains a plausible alternative.
Back to the Moon: the first Block I Ranger is scheduled for launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida atop an Atlas-Agena B for late July, 1961. Its sister probe, Ranger 2, will follow into space aboard a similar rocket sometime in October.
Ranger Block II will be the first Moon missions. Scheduled for 1962, three probes will fly through the airless void to make a direct hit on the Moon. The original proposal called simply for each Ranger to carry a TV camera to map potential landing sites. But, just as nature abhors a vacuum, scientists abhor minimum missions. Thus, some of the sky science experiments from Block I will make their way to Block II — over the protests of engineers, who abhor complication.
The neatest bit is the MoonQuake detector. It is hoped that the Rangers will not be completely destroyed at the end of their missions: Each probe carries atop its main bus a thick sphere of balsa wood. At the very center of each ball is a seismometer which will determine if the Moon produces quakes just as they occur on Earth. The balsa sphere will protect the sensitive geological instrument upon impact with the lunar surface. Six silver cadmium batteries will power the seismometer for up to one month after the rough landing.
Just as with earthquake science here on Earth, the Ranger 3 through 5 science packages should teach us much about the composition of the lunar interior and if the Moon is still geologically active or not. Although most scientists now accept that the vast majority of lunar craters were caused by ancient meteor and comet impacts, it may be that some of them are actually the calderas of volcanoes. Scientists want to know if any of them may still be active.
Finally, we have Ranger Block III. As with their predecessors, the robot probes of Block III will also be sent plunging into the Moon. While these mechanical explorers will not survive their high-speed impacts with the lunar crust, they will nevertheless return thousands of increasingly detailed images of particular regions of the Moon in real time using a bank of onboard television cameras. These images will help scientists understand the finer details of the lunar surface both for geology as well as assisting NASA with future locations for soft landing missions, including manned vessels.
The manned program that will benefit from the findings of the Ranger program is Project Apollo. The space agency had already planned Apollo as a follow-up spacecraft to Mercury with goals including a circumlunar flight or even a lunar orbital mission. With President Kennedy’s new mandate to place a man on the Moon by the end of this decade, NASA has already begun to expand Apollo to include the ability to land astronauts on the lunar surface. Whether this will involve using the entire Apollo craft and the powerful Nova rocket currently on the drawing board or perhaps an alternate concept of a separate Apollo craft and lander will be decided after much study and debate.
One thing from all this is certain, though: The Soviet Union has clear ambitions for the ultimate high ground of space. Should the Soviets come to dominate Earth orbit and our neighboring worlds, especially if they include nuclear arms in this mix, the American way of life will be under a greater threat than ever before since the end of the last World War and the start of the Cold War.