NASA's Surveyor Lander Brought the Moon to the World

Charles Conrad examines Surveyor's TV camera prior to detaching it on Nov. 20, 1969. The Apollo 12 lunar module is in the background. (Image: NASA)

By Robin Tricoles, University Relations - Communications, August 17, 2016

While their colleague Richard F. Gordon was busy orbiting the moon in Apollo 12's command module in late 1969, fellow astronauts Charles Conrad and Alan Bean decided to take a little stroll. They exited Apollo 12's lunar module and moseyed across the lunar surface to Surveyor 3, which was parked right where it had landed two and a half years earlier.

Conrad and Bean snapped photos of the little lander and of each other. Afterward, the two harvested Surveyor 3's camera, some of its cable and tubing, and its trenching scoop and made tracks back to their craft. The astronauts spirited their haul back to Earth, where researchers and technicians would study how the lunar environment had affected the assorted parts.

NASA's Surveyor program, which ran from June 1966 through January 1968, consisted of seven lunar camera-equipped flights in support of the upcoming manned Apollo landings. The intent was to find a way to safely land men on the moon. Five of the spacecraft made it; two didn't.

But of the five craft that did, they transmitted about 92,000 digital images back to Earth via television cameras. In turn, those images were put on film and the digital data forgotten about. After all, back in the 1960s, hardcopy - film in this case - ruled the day.

"When the data came back, it was digital to begin with because it had to be transmitted back to Earth," says Shane Byrne, associate professor in the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and lead scientist on the project.

"Once they printed it out and put it on film, they forgot about the digital data, and it got lost over time because why would you need the digital data? That was the thinking at the time. The 1960s was sort of the Wild West of space exploration, and that made it very fun and exciting."

Now the UA's Space Imagery Center in LPL is digitizing the film and putting the final touches on those images. Soon they will be available to researchers and the public throughout the world.

Those final touches include collecting specific data, such as instrument temperature, time of day and camera-pointing angle, to accompany each and every frame. "Alongside each image, there will be printed information about it," Byrne says. "That is valuable information to use later, so you know what you're looking at."

In fact, Ewen Whitaker, a retired LPL research scientist, used those films and others from the Lunar Orbiter program to locate Surveyor 3 so that NASA could land an Apollo spacecraft nearby.

"NASA had no way of knowing where the moon spacecraft were," Byrne says. "Ewen took the pictures from the Surveyor spacecraft so he could pick out mountains and craters and things like that. And then he looked at the overhead images from Lunar Orbiter to try to pick out the same features and figure out where the landers were."

Because the approximately 30 reels of 70-millimeter film were slowly degrading over time, it became increasingly important to convert the film into digital format.

"And the data themselves are important because we've landed on only a handful of locations on the moon," Byrne says. "But if you wanted to see the data, that meant coming here and pulling a spool of film off a shelf.

"We didn't realize the images weren't available digitally online because almost everything is. It certainly was a shock to find that these images weren't available to everybody."

Justin Rennilson, co-investigator on the original Surveyor television experiment, was the one who approached researchers about digitizing the images. Byrne wrote a proposal to get the job done and NASA funded it. Shortly thereafter, in the spring of 2015, John Anderson, a media technician at the Space Imagery Lab, and Maria Schuchardt, the center's program manager, began scanning the film.

There are two main types of terrain on the moon, Byrne says.

"All of the Apollo missions and most of the Surveyor missions went to one type: the lunar mare, the dark areas of the moon," he says. "It's smoother and safer to land there, and that was the motivation for sending the astronauts there. But most of the moon is covered with the bright areas, the lunar highlands, which is most of what you see when you look up. The bright areas are much rougher, much more cratered. So none of the Apollo landings were made there."

Once all the data are archived, scientists will be able to assemble a mosaic of all the images, Byrne says.

"You'll have a full panorama, and you can even watch how it changes as the sun moves across the sky," he says. "I think it's great because the moon is so local. It's right next door."