Smithsonian Air and Space Museum

Robots on the Moon

Homer Newell and Lunar Science


Homer Newell
Homer Newell established the lunar science program and set the direction for space science at NASA, but he also spurred initiatives for communications, weather, and other scientific satellites.

After President Kennedy's 1961 speech and the first flights of Project Mercury, NASA embarked on several science programs to prepare for a moon landing. Under the direction of Homer Newell (1915-1983), Associate Administrator of the Office of Space Science and Applications, NASA sent Ranger, Surveyor, and Lunar Orbiter spacecrafts to study the Moon between 1962 and 1968.

These robotic vehicles provided scientists and engineers with a greater understanding of interplanetary space and lunar geography and played an important role in preparing for a manned landing. Newell not only established the lunar science program and set the direction for space science at NASA, but he also spurred initiatives for communications, weather, and other scientific satellites.

To prepare for Apollo, robotic spacecraft equipped with scientific instrumentation studied the Moon from 1962 to 1968. The Ranger and Lunar Orbiter programs provided photographic coverage of the lunar surface, and Surveyor landed to sample the lunar surface. This information was of great value to scientists studying the history of the Moon and to engineers planning the Apollo program of manned lunar landings. This detailed, systematic program of research with robotic spacecraft, both in orbit and on the surface, served as a model for later exploration of the planets. Photographic coverage assisted in selection of Apollo mission landing sites while knowledge of the physical characteristics of the lunar soil assured appropriate design of the Apollo lunar module.

These were the American robotic spacecraft designed to explore the Moon:

Ranger, 1961-1965
Surveyor, 1966-1968
Lunar Orbiter, 1966-1967

Surveyor 3 on the Lunar Surface
NASA's robot spacecraft Surveyor 3 landed on the moon on April 20, 1967.
Lunar Surface
Lunar Surface

Ranger: A First Look at the Moon


Ranger Spacecraft
The Ranger Spacecraft

Project Ranger was quickly initiated in 1959 to demonstrate that America could achieve feats in space comparable to those of the Soviets. Ranger spacecraft were to carry scientific instruments and television cameras to gather information about the Moon before crashing into it.

The decision to land a man on the Moon changed the goals and schedule of the Ranger effort. The science program now had a dual purpose: to scout for landing sites for Apollo astronauts and to gather new information about the Moon.

The Ranger spacecraft gave Americans their first look at the Moon from close range. Nine Rangers were launched from 1961 through 1965. The first six failed. The spacecraft was redesigned and Rangers 7, 8, and 9 successfully transmitted more than 17,000 television pictures of the lunar surface. These images revealed details unseen by telescopes on Earth. During the last mission, the pictures were broadcast live on network television, enabling millions of viewers to witness a descent to the Moon.

Ranger 8 Image

A First Look at the Moon
This television picture was transmitted by Ranger 8 about two seconds before impact in the lunar Sea of Tranquility on February 20, 1965. The image, from an altitude of about 360 meters (1,200 feet), shows an area about 1.4 kilometers (0.8 mile) on a side.


Ranger 7 Lunar Probe replica
A replica of the Ranger 7 lunar probe on display in the Lunar Exploration Vehicles gallery at the National Mall building.
Ranger Spacecraft
Diagram of the Ranger spacecraft. After the first six Rangers failed, the spacecraft was redesigned. This shows the design of Rangers 7, 8, and 9.


Spacecraft Specifications

  • Height: 3.1 m (10 ft 3 in)
  • Span: 4.6 m (15 ft)
  • Weight: 366 kg (809 lb)
  • Manufacturer: Jet Propulsion Laboratory
  • Launch vehicle: Atlas-Agena B


Surveyor: Testing the Surface


Of the seven Surveyors launched from 1966 through 1968, five landed successfully. They transmitted almost 88,000 television pictures of the lunar surface back to Earth. Using the scoop on the extended arm of the spacecraft, they sampled lunar soil and performed chemical analyses of the soil and other scientific experiments. Surveyor confirmed that the lunar surface could support a landing craft and that astronauts would be able to walk on the Moon.

Surveyors 3 through 7 each carried a robotic arm and sampling scoop to test the lunar surface for hardness, collect soil samples for onboard analysis, and move instruments about on the surface of the Moon. The arm was guided from Earth, with a television camera serving as the operator's eye.

Surveyor 3 had been on the Moon for two and a half years when the Apollo 12 crew arrived in 1969. Astronauts Charles Conrad Jr. and Alan Bean removed its television camera, surface sampler, and some tubing and brought them back to Earth for analysis.

Surveyor Test Vehicle
NASA and industry program managers with an engineering test vehicle of the Surveyor.
Surveyor 3 Scoop
The sampling scoop on the Surveyor spacecraft, which collected lunar rocks, had just made contact with the lunar surface when this television image was transmitted back to Earth on April 21, 1967.
Charles Conrad Jr. examines Surveyor III (3)
Two and a half years after Surveyor 3 landed on the moon, Apollo 12 astronaut Conrad meets the spacecraft and collects its camera and rock samples to bring back to Earth for analysis.

Spacecraft Specifications

  • Height: 3 m (10 ft)
  • Width: 3.5 m (11 ft 6 in)
  • Weight (at landing): 283 kg (625 lb)
  • Manufacturer: Hughes Aircraft Corp.
  • Launch vehicle: Atlas-Centaur


Surveyor
Surveyor 3 engineering model on display in Gallery 112, Lunar Exploration Vehicles.


Surveyor Diagram
Diagram of the Surveyor Spacecraft in its landed position, how it would appear on the moon's surface.

Surveyor Firsts

First U.S. soft-landing on the Moon (Surveyor 1)
First color pictures from the surface of the Moon (Surveyor 1)
First "dig" on an extraterrestrial body (Surveyor 3)
First color pictures of Earth from the Moon (Surveyor 3)
First on-site chemical analysis of lunar soil (Surveyor 5)
First launch from the Moon (Surveyor 6)


Lunar Orbiter: Mapping Missions

The Lunar Orbiters were designed to provide detailed photographs for mapping the Moon. Five Lunar Orbiters were launched in 1966 and 1967. The first three missions concentrated on potential Apollo landing sites. The last two spacecraft went into polar orbit for scientific photography of the Moon.

Each Lunar Orbiter carried a complete film processing laboratory. Both close-up and wide-angle pictures were made on 70-millimeter film, developed, scanned, and converted to electrical signals, and then transmitted to Earth. The Lunar Orbiters photographed about 95 percent of the Moon's surface from an altitude of about 45 kilometers (28 miles), revealing features as small as 0.3 meters (1 foot) in diameter.


Illustration of Lunar Orbiter in Flight
A representation of the Lunar Orbiter spacecraft as it would appear during flight.

Lunar Orbiter
Lunar Orbiters photographed the Moon to aid in selection of landing sites for Apollo manned missions.  This Lunar Orbiter, shown on display at the National Mall Building, was used for ground tests. 
Copernicus crater - image taken by Lunar Orbiter 2
This photo of the floor of the crater Copernicus was taken by Lunar Orbiter 2 in November 1966. Copernicus is 95 kilometers (60 miles) across and 3.2 kilometers (2 miles) deep.
Lunar Orbiter Diagram


Spacecraft Specifications

  • Height: 1.7 m (5 ft 6 in)
  • Diameter: 1.5 m (5 ft)
  • Width (antenna): 5.6 m (18 ft 6 in)
  • Weight: 390 kg (860 lb)
  • Manufacturer: Boeing Aerospace Co.
  • Launch vehicle: Atlas-Agena D

Lunar Orbiter Firsts

First U.S. spacecraft to orbit the Moon
First image of the Earth from the vicinity of the Moon
First detailed pictures of the Moon's far side
First virtually complete photographic coverage of the Moon
First photo of another man-made object on the Moon (Surveyor 3 photographed by Lunar Orbiter 3)