Surveyor: The Study, Proposal, and Program Initiation—Jack Fisher

Shortly after the launch of Sputnik in October 1957 William Pickering, Director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), proposed that the US meet the Russian challenge by sending spacecraft to the moon. In early 1958 responsibility for the US space program was assigned to DoD’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) and they embarked on a lunar program called Pioneer with vehicles designed by Space Technology Lab and JPL. Five Pioneer missions were attempted during 1958-59 the most successful of which passed by the moon at a distance of 60000 km. These Pioneer flights however, returned important information about the Van Allen radiation belts.

In February 1959 NASA established a working group on lunar exploration that included representation from NASA, JPL, Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA), Caltech, and the University of California. This group was given the responsibility to develop a lunar exploration program that was to include circumlunar vehicles, hard lunar impacts, close lunar satellites, and instrumented soft lunar landings. These missions were to be based upon use of Saturn booster with various upper stages.

On April 30, 1959 JPL submitted to NASA a five-year plan for space exploration that included missions to Venus, Mars, and the Moon. The plan for lunar exploration included an orbiter, a hard landing mission and a soft landing mission scheduled for June, 1963. Despite the inclusion of lunar missions in this plan, JPL tended to favor planetary exploration for the reason that the opportunities for planetary missions occur less frequently—every 19 months for Venus and 25 months for Mars—whereas lunar mission opportunities occur every month. JPL’s plan called for 3-4 flights per year and included consideration of flight mechanics, navigation, guidance, spacecraft design and science instrumentation.

NASA headquarters, however, in reaction to Russia’s Luna missions, strongly favored a program of lunar exploration. In December 1959 NASA adopted the Air Force’s Atlas-Agena B for all initial space missions and assigned to JPL five lunar and two planetary missions using this launch vehicle. The five lunar missions, later expanded to nine, became known as Ranger. The Ranger mission was defined as an unbraked lunar impact with TV pictures transmitted back to Earth prior to impact. Nine Ranger missions were flown from 1961 to 1965 with the last three achieving all mission objectives.

On February 1, 1960 ABMA completed a lunar exploration report under contract to NASA. The 400-page report dealt with guidance, control, flight mechanics, vehicle design, and prospective payloads.

It’s difficult, and almost impossible, to gather much information regarding the beginnings of Hughes Surveyor program. In January 1960 NASA provided a ten-year plan that called for controlled unmanned landings on the moon in 1963-64. In early 1960 they generated requirements for the study of a lunar soft-lander to be known as Surveyor. Mission management responsibility was given to the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL). In NASA terminology this was to be a program, i. e. more than one mission as it was to include an orbiter eventually as well as the lander. Over JPL’s objection the winner of the final contract would be a prime contractor with overall responsibility for design of the lander as well as mission design and mission operations. In NASA’s judgment JPL had their hands full at this time with Ranger and Mariner missions.

The JPL developed requirements for a combined study/proposal that were documented in the three volumes of Technical Memorandum 33-13. Volume 1 contained design study requirements for the spacecraft and mission, Volume 2 contained lunar trajectory characteristics and constraints, and Volume 3 described the intended science mission and the prospective science payload. The contracts to be awarded called for the design of the soft landing spacecraft and a proposal for the development of the spacecraft and the ensuing flight operations. Important constraints were the use the Atlas-Centaur launch vehicle with a capability of injecting 2500 pounds into a trans-lunar trajectory from Cape Canaveral, lunar arrival over the Goldstone tracking station with a prospective flight time of 66 hours. The ensuing contract was designated to be Cost Plus Fixed Fee and the first of seven launches was to be in April 1963. The study/proposal schedule called for a bidders briefing on May 13, 1960, study proposal submission on June 6, start of the study contract on July 15, proposal/study submission on December 15, and start of the development contract on April 1, 1961.

Thirty seven potential contractors submitted bids for this study. On July 9 NASA announced that study contracts were being awarded to Hughes, North American, McDonnell and Space Technology Lab (STL). The Hughes study/proposal team was located in a bullpen in the Culver City facility. The proposal manager was Leo Stoolman assisted by Bob Sears.  Other members the team included John Bozajian, Jim Cloud, Shel Shallon, Perry Ackerman, Fred Hummel, Mal Meredith, John Bozajian, Tom Van Horne, Ken Beall, Neal Hertzman, and Max Mason.

Bob Roney played a crucial role in the overall definition of the spacecraft and mission and provided Fred Hummel with significant assistance in the design of the terminal descent. John Bozajian was responsible for the structural design and landing system including the legs, foot pads, and crushable pads.  Jim Cloud and and Mal Meredith did the mission analysis and Ken Beall and Tom Van Horne provided systems engineering support.

On January 19, 1961 a NASA press release announced that Hughes Aircraft had been selected to build Surveyor. Fred Hummel noted that after the award JPL provided Hughes with copies of the competitor’s proposals. In his opinion, the Hughes and STL proposals were significantly better than the others with the primary difference being STL’s digital implementation of the terminal descent logic while Hughes relied upon an analog implementation.

The award announcement occurred just one day before the inauguration of John Kennedy as president of the US. These two events didn’t seem related at the time, but on May 25, 1961 Kennedy announced that we would send a man to the moon in this decade. And later, on July 17, 1962, NASA defined the landing zone for the Apollo missions and announced that the Ranger and Surveyor missions would support Apollo. This completely changed the character of the Surveyor mission away from scientific exploration to that of being a precursor for Apollo.

The Surveyor project was organized as a laboratory in the newly formed Space Systems Division with Leo Stoolman as the manager with Bob Sears as his assistant. Jim Cloud was named as the manager of Systems Analysis and Dick Cheng, formerly a member of STL’s Surveyor proposal team, joined the Hughes Surveyor team as Jim’s assistant.

The negotiated development plan for the Surveyor spacecraft and mission was finalized on August 7, 1961. The negotiated cost for seven spacecraft was $67M. The Atlas-Centaur was required to inject a payload of 2500 pounds into a trans-lunar trajectory and the science payload of approximately 340 pounds was yet to be defined by JPL.  The first launch was scheduled for August 1963.

The first two years of the Hughes Surveyor program were quite eventful. Subcontracts were let for the solid propellant retro motor with the Elkton Division of Thiokol, for the vernier propulsion thrusters with the Reaction Motors Division of Thiokol, and for the Radar Altimeter and Doppler Velocity Sensor with Ryan Electronics and the Hughes Santa Barbara Research Center was chosen to provide the Canopus sensor.

With difficulties in the development of the Centaur stage it became necessary to delay the first launch to August 1964. Furthermore, in the Spring of 1962 NASA’s Marshall Spaceflight Center (MSFC), formerly ABMA, now responsible for Centaur development, informed JPL that the Centaur could not provide the required 2500-pound payload capability. The reduced payload capability of 2100 pounds required a substantial redesign of the Surveyor spacecraft. This was accomplished with a significant reduction in the science payload and the attendant reduction in propellant weight. The spacecraft for the first five missions, now designated as A-21, would carry a reduced engineering payload while the remaining two missions, designated as A-25, would carry the full payload.

In November 1962 Leo Stoolman displayed the Surveyor reduced payload design at a meeting of the American Rocket Society in Los Angeles.  He told the gathering that the payload redesign was due to the reduced capability of the Centaur and the need to support the Apollo manned lunar landing mission.

With the transfer of Centaur program responsibility from MSFC to NASA’s Lewis Research Center in September 1962 came a decision to not provide the restart capability required for the parking orbit mission mode until all other design issues had been successfully settled. The parking orbit mode provided a great deal of mission flexibility with possible launch opportunities every month. The lack of restart capability necessitated a direct ascent mission mode that was possible only when the moon’s position (declination) was in the southern hemisphere. Mission opportunities were further restricted by lunar lighting constraints that favored launching in the summer months. Although the direct ascent injection was more restrictive in determining launch opportunities favorable lunar geometry in the mid to late 1960s provided suitable Surveyor mission opportunities.


The Atlas-Centaur Story—Jack Fisher

It’s impossible to tell the story of the Surveyor lunar missions without relating it to the history of the development of the Centaur upper stage. Their developments proceeded in parallel and they both had their share of difficulties. Five of the first seven Centaur test flights failed and some quarters related this to delays in the Surveyor program. Fortunately operational capability was achieved at nearly the same point for both Centaur and Surveyor in early 1966 in time for the first Surveyor launch on May 30.  For the complete history of Centaur see NASA’s “Taming Liquid Hydrogen, The Centaur Upper Stage Rocket.”

The Centaur was conceived in the mid-1950s by Kraft Ehricke at General Dynamics as a second stage for the Atlas ballistic missile with the mission of boosting payloads to synchronous orbit or to escape velocity.  The design was based upon a pressure-stabilized structure, like the Atlas, and the use of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen as high-energy propellants.  Two RL-10 engines, designed and built by Pratt & Whitney, provided 16500 pounds of thrust each.  General Dynamics wrote a proposal to the Air Force for the design and development of the Centaur in 1957.  A further GD proposal was accepted by ARPA in August of 1958 with $36 million for GD and $23 million to Pratt & Whitney. This shortly became a joint ARPA and Air Force program.

After the formation of NASA in 1958, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center took over the Air Force’s role. At this time plans called for the use of Centaur to launch the Mariner missions to Venus and Mars, the Surveyor lunar mission, and the DoD’s Advent geosynchronous communications satellite with the first launch planned for January 1961. The Advent mission placed a requirement for several Centaur engine restarts as a parking orbit was required to position the satellite for injection into a transfer orbit following a 5-hour coast prior to injection into a geosynchronous orbit.

In the spring of 1962, Marshall informed JPL that Centaur could not inject the required 2500 pounds into a translunar trajectory and asked for a reduction in payload capability to 2100 pounds. This change required that the Surveyor be redesigned to accommodate the lesser payload. During 1962 there was Congressional pressure to cancel both the Centaur and Surveyor programs.

The Centaur development was in trouble quickly with several engine explosions on test stands at P&W. On May 8, 1962 the first flight was lost when an insulation shield failed and the vehicle exploded 55 seconds after liftoff. Further problems arose due to managerial neglect at MSFC with their focus on development of the Saturn launch vehicle. In August 1962 Werner von Braun recommended cancellation of the Centaur program and use of the Saturn C-1 with an Agena third stage for the Mariner and Surveyor missions. NASA headquarters vetoed this proposal and in September transferred the Centaur program to the Lewis Research Center in Cleveland. Lewis had considerable previous experience in the handling of cryogenic propellants and therefore was deemed to be capable of managing the Centaur project for NASA.

Abe Silverstein, the newly named director of LRC, took over personal management of the Centaur program. The contract with GD was renegotiated at $321M for 14 flight vehicles plus a number of test articles with a fixed fee of $31M. NASA insisted upon a number of changes at GD including adoption of PERT and a move from matrix to project management as well as a strengthening of systems engineering. Silverstein also decided that the requirement for a two-burn Surveyor mission be abandoned until the single-burn or direct ascent mission had been successfully achieved. This placed additional constraints on the Surveyor mission, but fortunately the mission was still possible in the mid-1960s.

My personal knowledge of Centaur expanded greatly at this time. In May 1963 I attended a Centaur familiarization course held at GD in San Diego. I was also the Hughes representative to the Centaur coordination meetings that began when LRC took over the project. These meetings were held at JPL, GD in San Diego, and LRC in Cleveland with representatives from GD, NASA Lewis, JPL and Hughes.

Some of the issues I remember were the Centaur payload capability estimates that concerned us all. LRC introduced the idea of a 3-sigma propellant reserve that disturbed JPL and Hughes as the Surveyor weight was uncertain at this time and every bit of performance was crucial. As I recall the propellant reserve amounted to about 160 pounds. Since this propellant reserve had to be carried to injection into the translunar trajectory it was equivalent to payload weight. In retrospect, it just seems like good engineering practice to have this kind of reserve. Another issue that concerned this group was the possibility of the Surveyor Canopus sensor detecting the spent Centaur while trying to lock on the star. This possibility was avoided by a retrothrust maneuver following an attitude change that also prevented the Centaur from impacting the moon.

 Centaur Test Flights

 May 8, 1962 Centaur F-1, after spending 15 months on the launch pad the vehicle exploded when Centaur insulation panels failed shortly after launch.

November 27, 1963 AC-2, first successful launch of Atlas-Centaur with a Centaur single burn of 380 seconds. No payload was carried.

June 30, 1964 AC-3, Centaur engines shut down prematurely after a hydraulic pump failure.

December 11, 1964 AC-4, attempted to demonstrate RL-10 engine restart in space failed as the ullage rockets did not provide sufficient thrust to settle propellant. Carried a 2100-pound Surveyor mass model.

March 3, 1965 AC-5 carried a Surveyor SD-1 dynamic mass model. Atlas exploded on Launch Complex 36A severely damaging the complex. NASA had mothballed LC36B at 90% completion to save money so it had to be completed and LC36A had to be repaired.

August 11, 1965 AC-6 flawless single burn mission of 435 seconds with Surveyor SD-2 dynamic model.

April 7, 1966 AC-8, from LC36B failed to restart for second burn after 25 minute coast in a parking orbit Surveyor dynamic model SD-3

October 26, 1966 AC-9, successful Centaur restart after a 25 minute coast with Surveyor dynamic model SD-4.

All seven Surveyor missions were successfully launched by the Atlas Centaur: Surveyors I, 2 and 4 using the direct ascent mode and Surveyors III, V, VI and VIII using the parking orbit mode.  The Atlas-Centaur went on to launch a number of other Hughes spacecraft including two ATS missions, eight Intelsat IV spacecraft, six Intelsat IVA spacecraft, two Pioneer Venus missions for NASA, two Comstar spacecraft, and two Galaxy 376 spacecraft.

The following comment is from Steve Dorfman:  After Challenger exploded NASA backed off of it’s position that all US satellites be launched on shuttle opening up possibilities for Lockheed Martin’s Titan 3 and General Dynamic’s Atlas Centaur IIA. We had just won the Navy UHF competition to deliver ten satellites in orbit, giving us the responsibility for buying the Launch Services. We won the contract assuming a very good prices for launching without having final firm bids from LM and General Dynamics. A very intense competition between those two followed with both companies seeing this as a possibility to jump start their commercial launch business and Hughes looking for an agressive price to fit our own aggresive bid for the first large order for the HS 601. LM’s bid was based on 5 dual launches on Titan 3 which was an unacceptably high risk wheras GD bid 10 seperate launches. Al Lovelace the ex NASA administrator and GD lead for commercial Atlas flew into LA on the company jet and he and I met at the private jet facilities to hammer out a deal which came close to what we needed and was very aggresive on their part. This started GD and Atlas into the commercial lunch business and they wound up successfully launching 12 UHF HS601s which was a successful and profitable contract for Hughes. The Atlas Centaur remains the leading commercial launch vehicle today. It was win-win for both companies.