Today marks 50 years since humans landed on the Moon, a feat achieved thanks to Kiwi scientist William Pickering and his team.
Teams of engineers pursued goals that in isolation were ambitious enough, but collectively made up the massive Apollo programme, which would eventually cost US$25 billion ($154 billion in today’s money), the biggest investment by a nation in peacetime.
The Saturn series of rockets, the world’s largest, were in development. The cream of Nasa’s astronauts were training for the Gemini missions that would put them into low Earth orbit as a precursor to the Moon missions.
But that month, all eyes were on Pasadena, California, and Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), where New Zealander William Pickering was facing career-ending failure. Born in Wellington in 1910 and raised in Havelock, where he attended lessons in the same small schoolhouse as Ernest Rutherford had decades earlier, Pickering, as the JPL’s director, was in charge of the Ranger missions, which were intended to collect detailed images of the lunar surface for the risky Apollo landings. But six attempts by JPL to get the crucial images had come to nothing. Two Ranger spacecraft failed to leave Earth’s orbit, burning up in the atmosphere. Two others missed the Moon, one by 39,000km. Ranger 4 hit the Moon, but it didn’t return any data. Ranger 6 was on target, but its cameras failed at the crucial moment.
As the clock ticked down to July 28, launch day for Ranger 7, Pickering, known as a tough if understated administrator, rallied his demoralised team for one last effort.
“In space, you are fighting physics the whole time,” says Peter Beck, 42, an engineer and founder in Auckland of Rocket Lab, which has been sending small satellites into space from Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula since 2017.
“There is no pit stop, there is no reboot of the computer on the way up. It is either a raging success or a globally recognised failure.”
Beck spoke to the Listener as he prepared for his own seventh launch, dubbed Mission “Make It Rain”, a hat tip to the Seattle-based company Spaceflight that organised the rocket “rideshare”, a low-cost way to launch satellites that Rocket Lab is pioneering.
Make It Rain successfully delivered a payload of seven satellites into low Earth orbit, marking the seventh Electron rocket the company had launched and its third commercial satellite delivery this year.
Rocket Lab is one of the only rocket companies in the world sending small satellites into space, and Beck is the most prominent Kiwi in the space industry since Pickering. His company, now headquartered in the US, has attracted hundreds of millions of dollars in investment and a partnership with Nasa.
Beck sits at the centre of a fledgling New Zealand space industry that plays to our geographical advantages as a great place to launch rockets and keep tabs on an isolated and vast part of the planet.
But he knows he is only as good as his last launch. Rocket Lab has had a smooth run of launches since its first test flight had to be terminated in May 2017, when telemetry equipment from a third-party company lost contact with the rocket.
As with Pickering’s Ranger launches, millions of dollars are on the line each time Beck’s rocket lifts off. The physics remain the same, but the pressures are different in the nascent days of the commercial space industry.
The space race up close
The US Apollo programme and various missions Pickering oversaw at JPL had the national-security aim of leapfrogging the Soviet Union in space. Pickering was, ironically, at a cocktail party at the Russian Embassy in Washington DC in October 1957 when news broke about Sputnik, the first satellite to be sent into orbit around the Earth. The Soviets had beaten the Americans into space.
“The Russian vodka flowed like mad,” Pickering later told his biographer, Douglas Mudgway.
It was through gritted teeth that the Americans, in town for an international meeting of space scientists, toasted their Russian opposites. Pickering’s team at JPL had designed a satellite that could have been in orbit earlier. But he hadn’t received the go-ahead from the US Army. The American public greeted the news with dismay.
“People were startled to realise that this darned thing was going overhead about 10 times a day and there was not a thing they could do about it, and realising that what was thought to be a nation of peasants could do something like this, with this amount of technical complexity,” Pickering told Mudgway.
But four months later, nearly four years into his tenure as JPL’s director, Pickering had his first major triumph with the launch into orbit of the satellite Explorer 1. The Americans had saved some face. At a press conference to celebrate, Pickering hoisted high a model of Explorer 1, alongside Wernher von Braun, the scientist who had helped develop the V-2 rocket for the Nazis during World War II.
Von Braun, one of many German scientists co-opted by the US after the war to work on its own rocket programme, went on to lead development of the Saturn series of rockets that would lift the Apollo spacecraft and astronauts beyond Earth’s orbit.
Inspired by Apollo
A visit to the massive Saturn V rocket on display at Nasa’s Cape Canaveral launch complex in Florida was what inspired Beck to start Rocket Lab.
“The way they architected that vehicle and the decisions they made were beautifully simple,” says Beck, who was 20 at the time. “I started building rockets at school. My plan was always to go and work for Nasa or one of the big space contractors. But when I returned from that trip, I started the company.”
Today, the space industry is no longer a two-horse race. Numerous nations have space agencies and regularly launch satellites. Private companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin have eclipsed state-run efforts to innovate with new reusable rockets and satellite designs.
“Growing up, I always thought the Apollo era was the peak of space,” says Beck. “But now is the most exciting time to be alive and to be in space. You are going to see an incredibly exciting next few decades as we utilise space to solve some of the big problems we have on Earth.”
By 1961, it was clear the US space programme lagged Russia’s by two to three years. That was confirmed on April 12, when the Soviets went one up on the Americans again. In the Vostock 1 spacecraft, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin spent 108 minutes in orbit around the Earth, before returning, floating down in his capsule to land, an instant hero, in Kazakhstan.
The following month, President Kennedy took the space race to a whole new level.
“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth,” he told Congress.
“No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range exploration of space, and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”
The US space programme now narrowed its focus on Apollo and a manned Moon landing. That’s why, on July 28, 1964, it was exhausted and nervous JPL staff who gathered in Pasadena to listen to mission control announce the final moments of Ranger 7 as it hurtled towards the Moon. With six failed missions costing tens of millions of dollars, the stakes couldn’t have been higher.
The final developments came over the PA in a rush: “Pictures being received at Goldstone … one minute to impact … excellent … signals to the end … Impact!”
Ranger 7 slammed into the Moon exactly as planned, capturing the sought-after images along the way. Among the relieved JPL engineers was Pickering’s colleague and biographer.
“The unlikely, gleaming machine that most of us had worked on, or seen many times in the spacecraft assembly area at JPL, was actually on the Moon, and we had pictures to prove it. It hardly seemed possible,” wrote Mudgway in William H. Pickering: America’s Deep Space Pioneer.
More than 4000 images of the lunar surface were produced, the first detailed close-ups of the Moon. The news made the front page of the New York Times. Pickering flew to Washington the next day to present the photos to President Lyndon Johnson, who now faced the extra pressure of delivering a beloved dead president’s moonshot.
Those Ranger images provided much-needed intelligence to Apollo’s planners, says Duncan Steel, an English astronomer and space scientist who has worked for Nasa and now serves as chief systems architect at Xerra, the Earth Observation Institute based at Alexandra in Central Otago.
“Early on, they weren’t sure if the surface of the Moon would be so fluffy that a lunar lander would just sink into it,” he says.
The images showed the lunar surface to be firmer and smoother than experts had originally thought. Steel was 14 when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin moonwalked, and he watched the blurry black-and-white landing footage on TV.
“I wanted to be a part of that and wondered how one would go about doing it,” he says.
“You don’t think about how much things cost when you are young. It seemed like a natural thing to do.”
A decade later, astrophysics and applied-optics degrees behind him, Steel was at the University of Colorado, Boulder, working on the ultraviolet spectrometer that would analyse the atmosphere of Venus when it accompanied Nasa’s Pioneer Venus probe into orbit around the planet in 1978.
By then, says Steel, the curtailed space programme and a growing focus on space-shuttle and space-station projects had disillusioned many at Nasa who had worked on the Apollo programme.
“Now, astronauts needed to be people who didn’t question things, who would carry out a programme of things as opposed to the Apollo astronauts, such as Neil Armstrong, who took the controls as they were coming down towards the lunar surface and put it down with very little fuel left.”
The 1986 and 2003 Shuttle disasters, both of which killed seven astronauts, just compounded the agency’s risk aversion when it came to manned space exploration.
“I don’t think the Apollo programme would have a show of getting going now, because it was just too dangerous,” says Steel.
“You will always get astronauts who volunteer for missions and they know the dangers involved, but society isn’t prepared to put them in that danger.”
Triumph tinged with tragedy
Of the numerous setbacks the Apollo programme suffered as Kennedy’s deadline loomed, the best known is the tragedy of Apollo 1. It was to be the first low Earth orbital test of Apollo’s command and service module.
But in January 1967, an electrical fire engulfed the cabin during testing at the Cape Kennedy Launch Complex. All three crew members were killed. Precious weeks ticked by while Nasa held an investigation.
At JPL, Pickering’s efforts to pave the way for Apollo were reaching their zenith. He had followed up Ranger 7 with two more successful missions, culminating in Ranger 9, which delivered the first real-time television feed of the lunar surface; it was beamed into millions of US homes.
The final six planned Ranger missions were cancelled as money was funnelled to Apollo, a Nasa decision Pickering doesn’t appear to have greatly resented.
“If I were running the Nasa programme … and I could put science on Apollo by cancelling other programmes, I would do it,” he said.
But Nasa had a more ambitious project for JPL. Pickering was to follow up Ranger with the Surveyor mission series. This involved landing three-footed spacecraft gently on the Moon to take even more photos and perform scientific measurements.
Surveyor 1 touched down on the Moon in June 1966 with a flawless landing. Its TV cameras began sending a stream of images back to Earth, the sort of close-ups of rocks and lunar panoramas that would become the calling card of the later Apollo missions.
Six more Surveyor missions followed, two of which failed. But the later Surveyor landers also carried little robotic shovels that JPL could control remotely to dig into the lunar soil. Those measurements and the 92,000 images captured confirmed that the Moon was safe for astronauts to land on.
The success was tempered only by the fact that the Russians had beaten Surveyor 1 to the Moon by four months with their Luna 9 lander, which had remained active for only three days. But the political aspects of the space race still outshone the scientific. Being first still mattered.
With the conclusion of the Surveyor missions, the focus on Apollo became all-consuming. By 1969, Pickering’s budget at JPL was nearly half of what it was in 1967.
“Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin will always be the celebrated individuals for the Apollo 11 mission, but there were an estimated 400,000 engineers, scientists and technicians from more than 20,000 companies and universities needed to accomplish the Moon landing,” says Michelle Dickinson, the Auckland-based engineer, author and popular-science communicator better known as Nanogirl.
The Moon also looms large in Dickinson’s past, although, as with Beck, she wasn’t yet born when mankind took its “one giant leap”. Aged eight when her father gave her a soldering iron, she became obsessed with the idea of building a spaceship to visit the Moon.
“A large part of my childhood was spent opening household electronic devices to see how they worked and thinking about whether or not they would be useful for my spaceship.”
With a particular interest in materials and nanotechnology, Dickinson marvels at the way Apollo spurred innovation in everything from the design of rockets to space suits. Part of that was down to the considerable funding doled out to a large number of small, nimble companies to come up with solutions for Nasa.
The pressure to “win” in space as the Cold War raged created the impetus for Apollo’s success.
“One might argue that climate change is the one huge mission of our day that could do with the focus, funding and pressure that the Apollo mission exemplified,” she says.
“But I don’t think we will build that sense of unified urgency before it’s too late.”
Auckland astronomer Grant Christie loves showing people the Moon through his telescope. “Very few people aren’t impressed. It knocks their socks off,” says Christie, as he leads the Listener through a cluster of students visiting Stardome Observatory based at Auckland’s One Tree Hill Domain, where he has been the honorary astronomer since the early 2000s.
Christie was 17 and in his last year of high school at Mt Albert Grammar when Apollo 11 touched down. His history teacher didn’t turn up to class that day. Christie had a transistor radio with him. He and his classmates gathered around to listen to the live radio coverage of the landing, with Armstrong taking his first step on the lunar surface at 2.56pm on July 21, 1969 NZT, just before the final school bell rang.
Prime Minister Keith Holyoake ordered a Royal New Zealand Air Force Canberra Bomber that happened to be on the ground in Sydney on the day of the Moon landing to rush the ABC’s recorded footage across the Tasman so it could be broadcast on television by the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation that night.
In those days, the NZBC had to rely on commercial flights to carry film of international events across the Tasman after the items had been copied off Australian satellite news feeds. On this occasion, the ABC rushed the recordings to the airport, the air force flew them here, Customs gave them a fast clearance, then the precious footage was broadcast on national news five hours after the Moon walk happened.
Christie was already a keen amateur astronomer, making observations at Stardome, which had opened two years earlier, with the impressive Zeiss telescope as its centrepiece. The telescope, housed in its distinctive wooden dome, which rolls open to reveal the night sky and will soon be able to be operated remotely, has been overhauled ahead of the Moon landing anniversary.
On a wall at Stardome is a telegram sent to Christie and dated the day of the Moon landing. It was from US-based astronomer Barbara Middlehurst, who was co-ordinating with astronomers around the world to train their telescopes at the Moon as Apollo made its approach.
Looming so large and bright in our lives, the Moon is the “go-to place if you want to see detail”, says Christie. “I like looking at it because of my interest in geology.”
He considered becoming a geologist before the astronomy bug bit completely and he embraced the mathematics he had struggled with at school.
The photoelectric photometer at Stardome, a device that measures the brightness of stars, was returning a mass of data in the early 1970s. Christie taught himself the Fortran computer-programming language to make sense of it all. He would ultimately graduate from the University of Auckland with a doctorate in theoretical mechanics.But his passion for lunar geology remains. “On a good night with a good telescope, you can see a stunning amount of stuff up there,” he says.
“When sunlight is at the right angle, you can see these big holes in the Moon and lava tubes like we see on Rangitoto Island.”
After Christie’s more than five decades of stargazing, his interest lies in targets less obvious and far more distant than the Moon. He is one of a group of New Zealand astronomers who have used gravitational microlensing to discover distant exoplanets and search for black holes.
“It is a whole new way of looking at the cosmos,” he says.
“When black holes pass in front of a distant star and line up exactly, they produce a gravitational lensing signature that we can measure to find the black hole’s mass.
“I never imagined that my telescope would be contributing in some small way to understanding really fundamental things about the galaxy.”
Return to the Moon
The Apollo programme put 12 men on the Moon between 1969 and 1972. As far as President Richard Nixon was concerned, it was mission accomplished. There was little appetite for spending vast sums on more manned missions or establishing a lunar base. No human since has set foot on the lunar surface.
“The fact that it has not happened now for almost 50 years is a kind of sad reflection of the fact that it was all about trying to beat Russia,” says Ian Griffin, a Dunedin astronomer and director of the Otago Museum.
“I wonder where we could have been if we’d actually continued to invest in the space programme.”
But lunar exploration is again showing signs of life. In January, the China National Space Administration settled the Chang’e 4 lander on the far side of the Moon, in a manoeuvre that impressed space experts. In April, Israel sought to become the fourth country after the Soviet Union, the US and China to perform a soft lunar touchdown. But the US$100 million Beresheet spacecraft, launched by SpaceX, had an engine problem and instead crashed on the Moon, as Pickering’s Ranger probes had done more than 50 years earlier.
In May, Nasa announced the Artemis project, which aims to return astronauts to the Moon by 2024. President Donald Trump tweeted his enthusiastic support: “Under my Administration, we are restoring @Nasa to greatness and we are going back to the Moon, then Mars. I am updating my budget to include an additional [US]$1.6 billion so that we can return to Space in a BIG WAY!”
Less than a month later, he was contradicting himself in an incoherent Twitter update: “For all of the money we are spending, Nasa should NOT be talking about going to the Moon – We did that 50 years ago. They should be focused on the much bigger things we are doing, including Mars (of which the Moon is a part), Defense and Science!”
The space programme, it seems, continues to ebb and flow at the whim of the president of the day.
“I’m very excited by it,” Griffin says of Artemis. He was three at the time of the Apollo 11 landing, but credits it with influencing his decision to study science.
“If you’re going to practise for Mars, it’s good to have something to practise on that’s a bit closer to home.”
Stepping stone to Mars
Mars is, as Trump finally realised, the real prize. It will, however, require an effort of Apollo-like proportions and it comes with a new set of physical challenges.
“Astronauts will have six months of cosmic-radiation exposure just getting there. You’d have to build a base underground to survive,” says Christie.
Steel believes the massive cost and risk to human life are simply too great.
“If I live to 100, which is 2055, I don’t expect anyone to have set foot on Mars.”
But a Moon landing within five years is “infinitely possible”, says Beck.
“There just needs to be a given desire to do it. Will the resources be supplied to achieve it? That’s a whole other question.”
Rocket Lab’s place, however, is not in human spaceflight. Beck will instead continue to focus on getting satellites into orbit, many of them designed to peer back at Earth.
The Artemis mission is targeting a landing spot at the Moon’s south pole. Nasa knows there is water there, locked up as ice beneath the surface. It is the key to building a sustainable base on the Moon. Eventually, it might also be possible to extract hydrogen from the water to use as an energy source for refuelling spacecraft on the way to Mars and beyond.
China’s interest in the Moon isn’t purely scientific. Its space programme has economic development goals as well. There are rare earth minerals that could be mined on the Moon and its rocks and surface dust are thought to contain large amounts of helium-3, a rare isotope found in only tiny quantities on Earth.
“If you could bring back a kilogram of helium-3, that would be phenomenal,” says Christie. “You would be able to shut down a lot of coal-fired power stations.”
Helium-3 could fuel an efficient form of nuclear-fusion energy without producing the radioactive byproducts of conventional-fission reactors.
But the technology that could exploit helium-3 is still largely theoretical and it would require a large mining operation on the Moon to yield the valuable element.
Steel believes asteroids are a more viable target for mining in terms of the logistics of getting astronauts and equipment onto them – and off them again.
“There are lots of companies now looking at mining asteroids, which are chock-full of lots of useful things.”
The Artemis mission, Nasa also stated, would include the first woman to visit Mars.
“I’d put money on it,” says Dickinson.
“We know that teams made up of people with different skills and experiences are crucial to creating well-thought-out solutions to challenges, which a Moon trip is likely to encounter,” she says. “Therefore it’s in the best interests of the mission to make sure female astronauts are part of a diverse team and I’m confident that those putting together the team will know this.”
For Ian Griffin, the return to the Moon and missions to Mars have the potential to inspire a new generation, the way Apollo did his. Similarly, it may once again spur us to think about our future on Earth.
“It is said that the Earthrise picture taken by Apollo 8 created the environmental movement. That may well have had the greatest impact of the entire Apollo programme,” he says. “It would be great to use some of these technologies to address the challenges the planet faces, which will affect us in the future.”
Pickering was apparently in his lab at JPL when he heard of the Apollo 11 success. The role he and hundreds of JPL engineers played in laying the groundwork for Apollo’s triumph was somewhat overlooked, not least by his peers at Nasa.
When Surveyor 1 landed on the Moon, the response from them was muted. Pickering told Mudgway: “I felt the Apollo people should have been more interested in this than they were, but they said ‘Good landing’, that’s all.”
The Cold War raged within the space programme as well. Nasa bureaucrats didn’t like Pickering’s management style, which was nevertheless responsible for delivering some of the greatest engineering feats of the era. There was intense rivalry for dwindling funding.
Still, by the end of the 1960s, Pickering’s reputation was secure. His face twice graced the cover of Time magazine, not for Explorer or Surveyor, but the Mariner missions that ran from 1963-72 and sent JLP-designed and -built probes to investigate Mars, Venus and Mercury, crossing paths with the Russians along the way.
Interplanetary exploration and deep space were Pickering’s real passions, anyway. As he retired from JPL in 1976, his engineers were preparing the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 space probes to explore Jupiter, Saturn and its moon Titan, Uranus and Neptune.
Both probes completed their missions and are now beyond the solar system, in interstellar space, their instruments expected to function for another five years or so. They have travelled further than any other human-made objects and Pickering’s fingerprints are all over them.
He remained an avowed New Zealander throughout his life, despite the US citizenship he gained in the lead-up to World War II. He travelled back to give lectures and entertain schoolchildren with stories of the rocket age, until his death in 2004, aged 93.
In November 1969, Apollo 12 landed on the Moon, 200m from the Surveyor 3 lander. During a spacewalk, astronauts Pete Conrad and Alan Bean bounced their way across the Moon’s Ocean of Storms to Surveyor 3 and unbolted some of its equipment, taking it home with them for analysis to see how it had stood up to conditions on the Moon.
The Surveyor 3 camera, which had taken all of those stunning photos in the service of Apollo, was among the items that came back. The Surveyor camera made a 750,000km round-trip and was later delivered back into the hands of Pickering, the Kiwi responsible for helping the Americans win the space race.
This article was first published in the July 20, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.