Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/07/22/destination_moon/

To the Moon - with extreme engineering

Spontaneous, improvised - would it be allowed to happen now?

By Andrew Orlowski

Posted in Science, 22nd July 2009 10:50 GMT

It's a temptation, watching many of the 40th Anniversary retrospectives, to think of the Apollo space program as a triumph of power and industrial might. The superpowers' space programs were, of course, political and chauvinistic, designed to showcase national wealth. But there's a better way of looking at the program, Dennis Wingo reminded me recently. Masses of money helped put man on the Moon of course, but the Moon program is really a tale of engineering improvisation and human organisation.

Space expert and entrepreneur Dennis Wingo put the first webserver - an Apple Mac - in orbit, for just $7m, and has helped piece together a lot of historical material that NASA didn't appreciate at the time - and forgot about, or wiped. There is one piece of kit in particular that encapsulates two stories: NASA's negligence, and the quite amazing improvisation of the engineers. It's the Lunar Orbiter, which mapped the moon's surface prior to manned descent. Wingo painstakingly recovered and restored much of the imagery it took.

To give us an idea of how much Apollo owed to seat-of-the-pants ingenuity, it's worth remembering that the story of the Orbiter begins in 1961 - the year of the first human orbit of the Earth by Yuri Gagarin. The space pioneers were seeing a high death rate from test subjects - dogs (the USSR) and chimps (the USA), the latter proving to be a duff move - the chimps panicked in the claustrophobic conditions.

The US program lagged far behind the Soviets', and NASA's early attempts to keep up had become a national joke. The Ranger had been the first project to photograph the moon, with the modest ambition of crashing a probe onto the surface. But of the first six Rangers, two failed to leave the Earth's orbit, one failed en route, two missed the Moon completely, and although the sixth reached the target, its cameras failed.

Yet by 1964, much of the technology that eventually put man on the Moon had been already designed and built. The colossal Apollo expenditures were on the physical implementation of the program, including the many test flights. By 1965, the Apollo Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) was already being prepared as a long-term shelter and accommodation unit. And as Wingo points out, it was really down to 400 engineers - a fraction of what Google devotes to inserting advertisements into web pages - being given the freedom to put Heath Robinson designs into practice.

The most successful space mission of all time: the Lunar Orbiter

The Lunar Orbiter astonishes even today. It had to take pictures, scan and develop the film on board, and broadcast it successfully back to earth. Naturally, the orbiter had to provide its own power, orient itself without intervention from ground control, and maintain precise temperature conditions and air pressure for the film processing, and protect itself from solar radiation and cosmic rays - all within severe size and weight constraints. This was far beyond the capabilities of the newest spy satellites, which back then returned the film to earth in a canister, retrieved by a specially kitted-out plane. The Orbiter challenge was the Apollo challenge in miniature.

"A bunch of plumbers"

Between 1966 and 1967 the five Orbiters succeeded in mapping 99 per cent of the moon's surface, sending back the first pictures of the Earth from lunar orbit. Planning had actually preceded Kennedy's challenge to put man on the moon. In 1959 a team at the Jet Propulsion Labs under Albert Hibbs had envisaged a survey craft, winning funds for Congress for a Surveyor Orbiter and Lander. The design goal was to capture 100m resolution imagery with an orbiter weight of 950 to 1,100kg (even back then, NASA was metric). By the time Apollo was created, the project had got nowhere in fast in four years. The Surveyor project wasn't even operationally active when Apollo's demanding requirements came through in the summer of 1962.

For a manned vehicle to land safely, the Apollo directors wanted stereoscopic images to identify slopes of seven degrees, and obstacles less than 1m wide or deep. JPL was already over-burdened with existing projects, and the Langley Research Centre (LRC) took over. The LRC would choose and manage the contractors, and approve the technical decisions.

This choice didn't impress the experts. "How in the world could the Langley Research Center, which is nothing more than a bunch of plumbers, manage this scientific program to the moon?" asked the prominent Nobel-prize winning scientist Harold Urey, to NASA's administrator James Webb.

That's an odd question, and reflected the academic snobbery of the time. The private sector, which came to the rescue of the Apollo program time and again, had plenty of talent - particularly in the shape of STL (Space Technology Laboratories).

STL was a division of a company founded in 1953 by Simon Ramo, Hughes' former director of research, and Dean Wooldridge, another Hughes executive, after they had become disillusioned by Howard Hughes' management style. Ramo was the chief engineer on the ICBM missile program. STL said it could could design and build three orbiters in 22 months - using a spin-scan camera rather than NASA's preferred TV camera systems, and weighing just 320kg. In the end, STL wasn't the chosen bid, and the spin-scan was considered too risky.

But the bureaucratic arguments continued. The Apollo requirements were revised to identifying 15 degree slopes, 3.5m cones by 1965, and eight degree slopes and 50cm cones in a 1,600m radius area in subsequent missions. The project directors also needed to identify the nuisance posed by space dust (micrometeroid flux, in the jargon), cosmic radation, and solar particles. The twin requirements - high detail over a limited area, and medium resolution over a wide area, were to result in two cameras on board the Orbiter. Yet it was another year before a project office (LOPO) was established under Cliff Nelson, in August 1963.

The Orbiter required three different subsystems - capture, scanning, and transmission. All three, and everything else to get the Orbiter launched, were developed in parallel. The engineers and their managers simply didn't have time to read management theory books. Tech specs were deliberately kept minimal and open ended. Contractors were encouraged to "offer approaches which differed from the established specifications but which would result in substantial gains in the probability of mission success, reliability, schedule, and economy".

The thinking behind this was that the contractors would have to figure out what worked - there was no time for religious affiliations with specific technologies - and the most effective design would win. Of the five contractors who submitted bids, Boeing won - borrowing an Eastman Kodak system already used in spy satellites.

But Eastman Kodak had never had to take pictures quite like this before. The reflection from the Moon's surface is so harsh that everything appears flat. The final subsystem featured two lenses - a high res 610mm lens and a medium resolution 80mm lens, with the output interlaced onto a 70mm strip of film, some 80m long. The slow film permitted high grain resolution and sharp contrast pictures. It was developed using a dry processing technique used by Kodak for the spook satellite cameras.

The Orbiter's raster scanned the negatives with a 5 micron wide, 200 line process (later 2 micron, 500 line). Processing the first results took five hours. Getting the data back to earth was another challenge.

RCA provided the communications subsystem. A 1967 paper available to IEEE members today describes some of the innovations: "A vestigial sideband modulation for the transmission of the picture data, a full-verification command system, a low-gain antenna system whose pattern approaches that of an isotropic radiator over a large portion of the radiation sphere, and a dual-power-level transmission system which does not use RF switching." A lossless analogue compression technique was invented for transmission.

All five orbiters were eventually crashed into the Moon to avoid bumping into subsequent orbiters, and the Apollo missions, but not before taking 1,800 photographs.

Back on Earth, the first published photographs were actually captures from TV sets - it would take 40 years, a lot of perspiration and some good luck before the high resolution images were widely seen for the first time - and bureaucratic neglect almost destroyed them.

The result was the most successful project in US space history - the highest level of operational success. It was the Orbiter that took the first "whole earth" picture (not Apollo) and provided the first pictures of the dark side of the Moon*. Not bad for a "bunch of plumbers".

Recovering the images

The data languished in a vault with other space program detritus for years. Taking a call one day in 1986, NASA archivist Nancy Evans persuaded the JPL to put the tapes in air conditioned dedicated storage. She also had the forethought to request three Ampex 900 reel-to-reel tape machines that could read the Orbiter's data. This half-ton machine was already obsolete - most had been dumped at sea. But unable to find a federal facility for the readers, she stored them at home, where they gathered dust for 20 years.

Three years ago Wingo heard the tale, and started a project to restore the images - suspecting that the best imagery had never been seen, and that with modern graphic interpolation, they could be restored. Wingo moved the readers and 48,000 lbs (over 20 tonnes) of tape to NASA Ames. He hassled for funding, which was necessary to restore the readers to working order - and a team of volunteers in an abandoned McDonalds, renamed Pirate McMoon, set to work. (See the links at the end of this story for a presentation and more information on the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project.)

The results emerged earlier this year, and Wingo was vindicated by the results.

"The dynamic range of the images is incredible, it proved our point," he says. Computer processing allowed them to reveal features never seen before. Wingo also discovered that the photographs show polar ice extent for the period.

But the Orbiter looks even better when you remember the debacles that preceded it, and consider the achievements of the post-1960s space efforts.

The legacy of Apollo

The Langley team's success prompted some "What went right?" analysis. Erasmus Kloman, at the National Academy of Public Administration, was given the job of finding out. NASA published a redacted version of his report, Unmanned Space Project Management: Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter, which found that bureaucracy was kept to a minimum, while keeping sharply defined goals, and inter-agency turf wars were largely absent. Over on Apollo, 60 engineers reported directly to a senior manager.

As Wingo puts it: "The refugees from Apollo made up the middle management of every Silicon Valley hardware company - they gave it the management and technology backbone."

Mockup of the LEM, or Lunar Excursion Module

This was before the era of "corporate re-engineering" - where innovation came to mean reshuffling the administration, rebranding, and a high turnover of management fads. It's impossible to conceive how the EU or the US could achieve such results in a short space of time today. The modest space programs today take many years to complete.

The nature of science funding today, which has become politicised, also deters imagination and risk-taking.

Handing over the Presidency to Kennedy, Eisenhower observed that "a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity" and warned of the "prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money", with the danger that "public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite".

That capture is now complete - scientific "study" merely serves the political fashion, in the way Pocket Boroughs in England once served a landowner. Ideas have permanent incumbency.

Saturn V would surely never be completed now - somebody would complain about its "carbon footprint". With our impoverished idea of human achievement, pessimism about our scientific and technological capabilities, and little faith in human organisation, it is hard to imagine Apollo happening today at all. ®

Andrew warmly welcomes your comments

Want more Orbiter?

The LOIRP restoration project's blog MoonViews is a good place to start. After NASA agreed to fund Dennis' work - it only asked for the raw data, but NASA has a LOIRP image gallery. Dennis Wingo's presentation (Slideshare) to the Apple WWDC this year also tells the story, shows some examples of the image enhancement.

A great resource for old NASA documentation and technical material is the technical reports server (TRS) here. Look for the 430-page technical memorandum from 1977 titled "DESTINATION MOON". Oh. And the first picture of the far side of the Moon was actually taken by the Soviet Luna 3 in 1959 - thanks to Bill for the correction.