A classic of the early space age!
Before men landed on the Moon, we had to first crash land there successfully. This week, we dip back into the Astroguyz library to review the classic Journey Beyond Selene: Remarkable Expeditions Past Our Moon and to the Ends of the Solar System by Jeffery Kluger. We dug this gem up from our favorite Tucson haunt Bookman’s years ago. Selene tells the fascinating tale of the evolution of the unmanned space program. This paralleled the more high profile manned Apollo missions, and much of the experience and lessons learned paved the way for the ultimate success of the lunar missions.
When Kennedy first gave his visionary speech, we barely knew how to leave our own atmosphere, and rockets were blowing up on a seemingly daily basis at the newly established Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The first half of Selene covers the largely untold tales of those first unmanned moon shots. Rangers 1 -6 were unsuccessful for one reason or another, failing enroute, splashing down uselessly into the sea, or missing the Moon entirely. A whole new skill set had to be learned for deep space exploration, and tensions and public pressure mounted after each subsequent mission failure. “Success” finally came on July 28, 1964, when Ranger 7 crashed into the Sea of Clouds, returning 4,316 pictures prior to impact. Selene is chock full of fascinating facts and stories from the early days of JPL. For example, Ranger 3 actually contained a primitive lander in the form of a seismic detector encased in a balsa wood sphere filled with oil. The sphere was to disconnect shortly before impact, fire a small braking rocket, and bounce and roll to a stop on the lunar surface. Unfortunately, Ranger 3 missed the Moon entirely by 23,000 miles in January 1962. Such a simple but innovative landing technique would, however, be resurrected and applied starting with the Mars Pathfinder mission in 1997.
Ranger 3; note the “balsa-lander” ball! (Credit: NASA/JPL).
Selene also traces the look at the failure of each mission and how those losses built on to later success. One fascinating anecdote involves Warner von Braun and how he had requested that his own missile be “shot at him” during his V-2 days. The story goes that the early V-2 rockets were going up and simply vanishing without a trace. Von Braun positioned himself down range so he could observe the missiles demise and correctly deduced that they we’re coming up against the effects of atmospheric re-entry. Such a technique of observation, evaluation and correction would later be the hallmark of JPL and NASA.
Von Braun with V2 model. (Credit: NASA).
Selene moves on to cover the Surveyor series of landers, which paved the way for the Apollo series of sample returns. It is amazing to think that the era of Ranger 1 to Apollo 11 spanned a period of only eight years, and we had yet to fully understand basic things about the lunar environment that would be required should men visit, such as the depth or pervasiveness of lunar dust or the terrain.
Selene then moves on to some of JPL’s crowning achievements; the Pioneer and Voyager “Grand Tours” of the outer planets. As reviewed earlier this year in Voyager: Seeking Newer Worlds in the Third Great Age of Discovery, these epochal voyages represented a true pushing of the envelope of what was technologically possible. These triumphs contrast well with the grassroots era of JPL trial-and-error depicted earlier in the book. Without those early failures, the Grand Tour would have been impossible. Selene also presents a “you are there” style of commentary, unveiling the discoveries made at each planet on a blow-by-blow basis. Some discoveries were truly unexpected, such as the volcanic plumes on Io and the rings of Jupiter. These series of missions were a resounding success, and Voyager 2’s flyby of Uranus and Neptune still stands as the only reconnaissance of these distant worlds. Selene covers the tale of how engineers decided to reroute Voyager 1 past cloud shrouded Titan, a peek that set it on a path that ejected it from the Solar System. Finally, the book culminates with the results of the Galileo probe orbiting Jupiter and the then promise of Cassini. (Remember, this work came out in 1999!)
Do make an effort to track down Journey Beyond Selene for a fascinating look at the largely untold early days of JPL and how it evolved into the success story of today. It’s a truism that ultimately successful ventures are simply willing to fail longer than others; would we be as patient with something like the early Ranger program today?
Pioneer X at Jupiter. (Credit: NASA/JPL).