Surveyor I, 1967
Gerard Kuiper and Ewen Whitaker were involved in what was called the Ranger program, which was to send a spacecraft to the Moon and hard-land, impact it, but on the way down take these high resolution pictures, getting closer and closer and closer to see what the surface was composed of.
Ranger 7 was the first successful one, and sent back these high resolution pictures. We looked at those, and did geological analysis. There was still a debate about what the craters were. Were they volcanic or were they impact? That was a heated debate and was really not settled until probably around the late sixties. It turned out that the evidence was very strong that these were impact craters and not volcanic at all.
But it was still argued about what the lunar maria was. This is the dark areas of the Moon. We thought it probably lava. Others thought, no, it was just dust that you’d sink in. Well, the high resolution images from Ranger did not answer the question of whether this stuff was dusty or whether it was solid rock. So after Ranger, there was the Surveyor spacecraft. These were soft-landers, and during those missions there was also a lunar orbiter sent up there to get very high resolution images of the surface of the Moon. Then when the Surveyor soft-landed that would tell whether it would hold the spacecraft or sink in.
It turned out that the Surveyor spacecraft showed that the Moon’s surface was in fact firm enough that it would hold up a spacecraft landing on it, and it dug in the surface and sent back high resolution pictures. It became very clear at that point that, yeah, you could land a spacecraft on the surface of the Moon without it sinking down to hundreds of feet.
With Surveyor 1 was on Gene Shoemaker’s team. We were in charge of the cameras, what they would photograph. With the first Surveyor, they tracked it down and it photographed all the flat areas, the panoramas. But on the horizon there were little bright peaks. They knew roughly where they were on the Moon, in Flamsteed P.
The people at JPL and others, they figured out the place the thing had landed, because of the way the peaks looked. This was their theory and they published it in Science. I looked at this and thought, “I don’t know, that doesn’t sound right to me.” So I did a real job, I got some better pictures from JPL. They sent them to me of the mountains that you could see in this little piece of the panorama, and I got one of our best pictures—we’d taken it with the 82-inch in Texas—and sort of straightened it up and did the angles. I figured out where this had to be on the floor of this Flamsteed P flat area so that the angles of the peaks that you were seeing fitted in with what we saw from our Earth-based picture.
Well, that didn’t agree with what they’d written up in Science, so I had to look and see what were the two things the Surveyor radar caught as it was landing, and lo and behold, looking around, there were two very bright little tiny craters. I thought, Oh-oh, I betcha those were the two things that caused the blips in the radar, and therefore from that you could see where the thing had landed.
So I said that Surveyor was right about here. Once they photographed it, it was almost exactly where I predicted from the two craters—very close, within a hundred yards or something. We found out later that Orbiter 1 had actually photographed this thing with its low-resolution camera. You could just pick out a bright spot. Well, then they said, “You’re the one who’s going to find out where these things land in the future,” so that got me that little job, amongst others of course. That was exciting days with all the Surveyors.