Ranger Program, 1964-1965
Ranger 6 went off on the day it was supposed to. I’d chosen a place in Mare Tranquillitatis where the angles would be right and it’d be free of rocks and hopefully we’d photograph some domes on the Moon as it went down. But of course Ranger 6, something went wrong with the high voltage in the spacecraft. Before it got out of the atmosphere—and of course in low-pressure atmosphere you can jump sparks long-distances—sparks must’ve jumped and burned out the cameras or something.
So poor Ranger 6 never took any pictures. This was pretty sad. We were all at JPL and the launch was successful and up it went. We got there and we were all chewing our pencils waiting for the news: It’s getting near the Moon—time for camera switch-on—no news of camera switch-on. We’re getting closer to the Moon, distance to the Moon only a thousand kilometers—still no sign of warm-up, switch-on. The signals had ceased. We said, okay, the spacecraft has crashed.
That was Ranger 6. All right, back to the drawing boards. They found out what they thought was the problem with the high voltage, and redesigned it slightly. The next one was Ranger 7. I got this call from Gene Shoemaker once again: “Please find places for Ranger 7 to land.”
The third day of launch would’ve been the best one, and that was the one that was chosen. It went off because the weather was good, and finally got there and everything went fine—Yes, we’ve got camera turn-on! We were all at JPL, there was Urey, and Kuiper, and me, of course all the JPL engineers and everything; it was a big whoopee-do.
There were no pictures coming back live, we couldn’t see anything, but we could hear the signal from the cameras, just a tone coming in, signaling that the video was coming in. It was being recorded out in the Mojave Desert there, one of the tracking stations. So that was that, and of course it was hey, hey, popping champagne and everything.
But of course we hadn’t got the films. They had to be stored, put in a truck and driven down from the Mojave Desert which was a hundred-and-some miles away, so we didn’t get them for quite a long time. Then we got these things and they started printing out of pictures from them, and we got the first few prints—Oh, look at this, wow, you can see these craters! Of course the thing’s photographing as it came in closer and closer, just a solid series of pictures from all these six cameras, and so the view that you got closer and closer all the time.
The press conference was going to be that day, so I think we were all up 26 hours without any sleep. Anyway, Kuiper was on it: “This is a great day for science and a great day for the United States,” and a big whoopee-do and everything. That was very exciting.
Then I went back to England, but I had a two-week stay over here because we got all the negatives of the films—35 millimeter films, just like you put into your camera, but very long films—and then I chose a selection of things and printed up all these negatives. Oh, I tell you, two weeks of solid darkroom work. We got back to Tucson eventually and we had five months of writing out experimenter’s reports, so that meant looking at all these pictures and coming up with our theories. It was really an exciting time but very busy.
Kuiper was the Principal Investigator, and finally Ranger 7 worked. It had television cameras that photographed ever-closer views as the spacecraft approached and finally hit the Moon, and these were broadcasted live on national TV. I remember Kuiper being interviewed right after that happened, and his first statement was, “This has been a great day for America, this is a great day for science.” That’s how he began. So it was really stirring.
The first time I knew of Kuiper, he was on television. He had been interviewed at McDonald Observatory—I can still see an image of him standing out on the balcony, talking about astronomy. Kuiper knew that you had to get the public interested in what you were doing. That was a source of funding. He had the European polish and he could talk people into doing what he wanted to in terms of money. Those were his great qualities: He sold what he was doing.
He was the Principal Investigator on Ranger. There were several Rangers and they all failed, and finally we got to Ranger 7 which worked. It took amazing photographs. Bill and Dale and I would run down to the newspaper because they would get the first pictures; because television didn’t quite carry them in the way you wanted it to.
Ranger had gone down and taken these incredible photographs as it crashed on the Moon, and Kuiper got up at the news conference at JPL, and in typical Kuiper fashion, “These pictures are not ten times better than astronomical pictures, which would be phenomenal in itself. They are not a hundred times better than astronomical pictures, which is what the engineers promised us. They are one thousand times better.”
It just brought the house down. He just had that way of connecting with the public. I learned that from him: That you need to have the public involved, and that’s what really counts. Unfortunately a lot of people don’t understand that. Kuiper really valued that, and I give him a tremendous amount of credit.
There was a sequence of a wide-angled view and then closer, so a smaller area being seen. The thing we realized was, my gosh, there were craters everywhere. The most close-up picture that we had, there were still craters everywhere. And my job was measuring craters, and I thought, my god, this is never going to end. There’s going to be continuing stuff to do here.
The thrilling thing was not just seeing the Moon coming at you—because they had the first picture, the next picture closer up, the next picture close up—but below they said, “Live from the Moon.”
At that time I was working in the darkroom. We got the first high resolution images of the surface of the Moon from this crash-landing spacecraft. After many tries, they finally got a couple to work. It was all very exciting, because we were trying to extract as much information as possible just from imaging, and there was a lot of contention at the time about whether or not the surface was even strong enough to sustain the landing of a spacecraft. Some people predicted this was a very loose, powdery thing that would just swallow it up when we tried to land.
Kuiper got time on the Kitt Peak 84-inch telescope and Alika Herring and I went up to see the impact of Ranger 9, because there had been some suggestion that the Moon had a lot of dust on it, and there might be a large cloud of dust from the impact. So we got to use this really large telescope to look at the Moon with our eyeballs. Almost nobody, then or now, looks at the Moon with a large telescope with their eyeballs. I remember the stability of the atmosphere for seconds would be very good, and we could see tiny, tiny craters on the Moon that no one had ever seen before. They had never been photographed before. It was just very exciting. And when the spacecraft hit—we had the radio on; we could hear when it hit—there was absolutely nothing. That showed us and anybody else who was concerned that no, there wasn’t a huge amount of dust on the Moon.