Surveyor: Legacy and Lessons Learned—Jack Fisher

Although the Surveyor was ultimately very successful there were many difficulties and missteps on the road to the first lunar soft landing. The announcement that Hughes had won the competition came on January 19, 1961 and the contract start date was April 1, 1961. The Hughes development plan negotiated with JPL was dated August 7, 1961 and called for the first launch on July 30, 1963, and the seventh and final launch on August 9, 1965. Thus, to design and build a spacecraft and prepare for launch was planned to be 28 months and to launch all seven spacecraft 52 months. The negotiated cost for the Surveyor project was $67M.

The harsh realities of system development and management intruded upon this very optimistic plan. The first launch did not take place until May 30, 1966 some 62 months after contract start and the final launch occurred on January 7, 1968 81 months after go-ahead. The final cost for the Hughes project was $365M.

A number of reasons have been advanced for this situation. The Karth Congressional subcommittee that investigated the Surveyor project in 1965 identified four primary issues. First NASA, JPL and Hughes underestimated the complexity of the task and were overly optimistic. The negotiated development plan of August 1961 called for the first spacecraft to be in system test by December 1962 and the first launch by July 30 1963.

Secondly, the contract that was put in place at the start of the project was Cost Plus Fixed Fee (CPFF). Later in the project, just prior to the first launch, a Cost Plus Incentive Fee (CPIF) contract was negotiated and agreed to by JPL and Hughes. The claim is made that a CPFF contract gave little incentive to Hughes management to resolve problems and control costs. CPFF contracts were NASA’s standard at the time as through the end of 1962 80% of NASA contracts were CPFF.

Thirdly, Hughes management and technical skills were judged to be inadequate to handle the Surveyor development. The organization of the project led to much of the difficulty. The Surveyor project organization was placed in the newly formed Hughes Space Systems Division, but the organizations responsible for the design of the spacecraft were in other divisions. The spacecraft designers were matrixed into the project organization, but owed their primary loyalty to their home division. The Surveyor project manager had little leverage to control their activities when dealing with division managers who were superior in rank in the Hughes hierarchy. Also the lack of experience in systems management and systems engineering for a major space project was a vital factor in the difficulties.

Finally, JPL was primarily concerned with their in-house Ranger and Mariner missions that were having their own set of problems that demanded JPL’s full attention. Also there will little communication between NASA and Hughes and there was considerable friction between NASA Headquarters and JPL. JPL was new to the NASA environment and was much more interested with in-house developments than managing a major development contract.

Furthermore, a number of other issues became apparent during the early days of the Surveyor contract. It was unfortunate that both Surveyor and Centaur were new developments that had a number of significant problems. Both developments contributed to the schedule and cost issues. However, it is clear that the Surveyor issues did not contribute to the Centaur problems whereas the Centaur issues contributed directly to the Surveyor schedule slips and cost overruns. The unexpected reduction in payload capability for lunar missions from 2500 to 2100 pounds resulted in a number of Surveyor design issues. Also the LeRC decision to postpone Centaur parking orbit capability until other issues were resolved caused a significant reduction in possible launch opportunities.

The nature of the Surveyor mission changed from purely scientific exploration to that of a precursor for the Apollo mission. Overriding issues were the nature of the lunar surface and whether it would support a spacecraft and the effect of thruster plumes on the surface. This and the reduction in capability of the Centaur caused significant changes in the payload design.

All of these factors and perhaps others resulted in the cost overruns and schedule slip noted above. Inflation played a minor role in the cost escalation—only 16% between 1961 and 1968. There were additional tasks that were undertaken by the project over the course of the program. One example of this was the support provided for five Centaur R & D flights. This included the crew at the launch site and the provision of a Surveyor mass model and four dynamic models that were to be carried into space by the Centaur on practice missions.

It would have very difficult to predict in 1961 the effort and resources required for Surveyor missions operations. The first attempts at the organization of mission operations did not occur until later in the project (I recall it being sometime in 1964) and Hughes became responsible for the Flight Path and Command and the Spacecraft Performance Analysis and Command teams. The definitive Surveyor Missions Operations System, JPL Technical Memo 33-264 was not published until April 1966.

There wasn’t much justification in 1961 to be optimistic about development of a new and complex system. The United States had just begun to gather experience in major space systems development and management. Of the 52 space missions attempted through 1961 barely 50% were successful. Through this period the USAF’s Discoverer, aka Corona, attempted 29 missions only ten of which were completely successful. JPL’s first launch of Ranger was in August 1961 and was not successful. A successful flight for Ranger was not achieved until 1964 on the seventh launch. The Centaur program that began in August 1958 had not even attempted a launch at this time. The first successful launch did not occur until late 1963 and Centaur was not deemed to have achieved operational status until mid-1965 based upon two successes in six missions.

Nevertheless when the Surveyor missions were finally flown the results were truly remarkable—five successful missions out of the seven attempted. The first lunar soft landings and determination that landers would not sink into many feet of dust thus paving the road for the upcoming Apollo manned lunar landings. The following two paragraphs are from NASA SP-184, Surveyor Program Results.

“The Surveyor program was planned to achieve soft landings on the Moon by automated spacecraft capable of transmitting scientific and engineering data during its first 2 lunar day of operation on the lunar surface. The program has three major objectives: (1) to develop and validate the technology for landing softly on the Moon, (2) to provide data on the compatibility of the Apollo manned lunar-landing spacecraft design with conditions to be encountered on the lunar surface, and (3) to add to our scientific knowledge of the Moon. All of these objectives have been achieved to a degree far beyond original expectations.”

“In summary, five Surveyors have landed and operated successfully on the lunar surface. Four of these examined widely separated mare sites in the Moon’s equatorial belt; the fifth investigated a region deep within the southern highlands. Four spacecraft survived the extreme cold of the lunar night and operated for more than one lunar day/night cycle. In total, the five Surveyors operated over a combined elapsed time of about 17 months on the Moon, transmitted more than 87 000 pictures, performed 6 separate chemical analyses of surface and near-subsurface samples, dug into and otherwise manipulated and tested the lunar material, measured its mechanical properties, and obtained a wide variety of other data which have greatly increased our knowledge of the lunar surface and the processes that have been acting on it.”

The Hughes legacy resulting from Surveyor is multi-faceted. First capturing the project was perhaps unexpected, but proved that Hughes could compete technically in the space arena and hold its own against some pretty stiff competition. The spacecraft design that soft-landed on the moon was not significantly changed from the proposal design. Another legacy was the cadre of engineers and managers that learned how to handle complex space missions and spacecraft. A number of future Hughes projects in the NASA, commercial and national security arenas owe their success to those folks who learned how on Surveyor. Also the company proved after a more than difficult development that it was ready to play in the big leagues of space systems development and proceeded to do just that over the next several decades.

The Surveyor bottom line is that after all the travail of the development phase the very successful Surveyor missions provided a firm foundation of the upcoming Apollo missions and began the scientific exploration of the lunar surface. Perhaps the greatest legacy of Surveyor was the creation of the Space and Communications Group in 1970. With this reorganization all the elements required for successful space system engineering and management, the project offices and the design organizations, were included in one organization. And if you would like to see Surveyor you can travel to Washington DC and visit the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum—it’s there in the Lunar Exploration gallery along with Ranger and Lunar Orbiter.