Reaching the Moon has not been an easy task, and there were many things to consider before Armstrong and Aldrin were sent to land on our natural satellite. One particular condition to test was how soft the Moon was.
Fifty years ago, the Surveyor 1 probe was sent to the Moon to perform the second ever controlled landing on a celestial body. It was a breakthrough technology combining sophisticated remote guidance, robotics, and imaging. It successfully landed on June 2, 1966.
Surveyor 1 was tasked with reaching the Moon's surface via a soft landing and investigating the properties of the lunar landscape. It sent about 11,240 pictures back to Earth, as well as information about the strength of the lunar soil and the temperature on the Moon.
With the data from the mission, NASA scientists were able to assess the risk and challenges of landing astronauts there. Would the lunar soil be strong enough to support the 15,200-kilogram (33,500-pound) Apollo Lunar Module?
A soft landing had been attempted a handful of times by the Russian space agency but was only successful once in February 1966.
“We figured the probability of success at around 10 to 15 percent,” Justin Rennilson, the co-principal investigator on the Surveyor television experiment, said in a statement.
He added: “I remember sitting there watching the oscilloscope as the spacecraft was coming down, all the way to the lunar surface. ‘God, the signal is still there and it is still working!’ I thought. We were successful and it was just astounding.”
The probe had some sophisticated imaging technology for the time. This was used to create the first panoramic photos of the Moon. Pictures of the three footpads proved that the soil was solid enough, but to put any doubts to rest, Surveyor missions three to seven were equipped with a little scoop to sample the surface.
Rennilson concludes: “The Chinese have an interesting saying: ‘When you take a drink of water, you should think of the source.’ I think that applies to the early unmanned space program. JPL has engineered so much of the modern stuff we do in space today. My remembrances are primarily about all the great things that we saw. So when Apollo landed, and when Curiosity landed on Mars, it was a great feeling.”