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The Moon Missions Before Apollo

The History of NASA’s Pioneer, Ranger, and Surveyor Programs
Sprecher: Daniel Houle
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Today, the Space Race is widely viewed poignantly and fondly as a race to the Moon that culminated with Apollo 11 “winning” the race for the United States. In fact, it encompassed a much broader range of competition between the Soviet Union and the United States that affected everything from military technology to successfully launching satellites that could land on Mars or orbit other planets in the Solar System.

Moreover, the notion that America “won” the Space Race at the end of the 1960s overlooks just how competitive the Space Race actually was in launching people into orbit, as well as the major contributions the Space Race influenced in leading to today’s International Space Station and continued space exploration.

The Apollo space program is the most famous and celebrated in American history, but the first successful landing of men on the Moon during Apollo 11 had complicated roots, dating back over a decade, and it also involved one of NASA’s most infamous tragedies.

Landing on the Moon presented an ideal goal all on its own, but the government’s urgency in designing the Apollo program was actually brought about by the Soviet Union, which spent much of the 1950s leaving the United States in its dust (and rocket fuel). In 1957, at a time when people were concerned about communism and nuclear war, many Americans were dismayed by news that the Soviet Union was successfully launching satellites into orbit.

At the same time, America would begin missions to the Moon as early as 1958. On March 27, 1958, Secretary of Defense Neil McElroy announced a lunar project for the International Geophysical Year, consisting of three Air Force launches followed by two Army launches of a JPL-designed lunar probe. ARPA directed the Air Force to launch its probes "as soon as possible consistent with the requirement that a minimal amount of useful data concerning the Moon be obtained".

Throughout the 1960s, NASA would spend tens of billions on missions to the Moon - the most expensive peacetime program in American history to that point - and Apollo was only made possible by the tests conducted through earlier missions, including the historic Ranger Program. 

Conceived as an early part of the attempt to land a man on the Moon, Ranger was designed to photograph the lunar surface in preparation for future landings. Until Ranger, images of the Moon were only available through Earth-based telescopes, which lacked the detail necessary to determine safe sites for landing a spacecraft.

Ranger aimed to fill in that gap of knowledge, and like many of NASA’s missions during the 1960s, the program exemplified both the successes and the failures of the agency’s early years. Nonetheless, the Ranger Program would set important precedents by taking the first close-up photos of the Moon and landing the first American spacecraft on the lunar surface.

Subsequently, between May 1966 and January 1968, the Surveyor Program launched seven unmanned spacecraft to the lunar surface to gather data and test the feasibility of landing a manned vehicle on the Moon. Although largely forgotten now, without these missions, the later series of manned Moon landings would not have been possible.

The Moon Missions Before Apollo: The History of NASA’s Pioneer, Ranger, and Surveyor Programs examines the origins behind the missions, the space probes involved, and the historic results.

©2020 Charles River Editors (P)2020 Charles River Editors

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