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NASA’s JPL and the Space Age: Destination Moon – “We Didn’t Know What We Were Doing”

An artist’s concept of NASA’s Ranger spacecraft approaching the Moon. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

After the establishment of NASAEstablished in 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is an independent agency of the United States Federal Government that succeeded the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). It is responsible for the civilian space program, as well as aeronautics and aerospace research. Its vision is "To discover and expand knowledge for the benefit of humanity." Its core values are "safety, integrity, teamwork, excellence, and inclusion." NASA conducts research, develops technology and launches missions to explore and study Earth, the solar system, and the universe beyond. It also works to advance the state of knowledge in a wide range of scientific fields, including Earth and space science, planetary science, astrophysics, and heliophysics, and it collaborates with private companies and international partners to achieve its goals.” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”}]”>NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s first major assignment was to explore the moon, taking close-up images before crash landing as part of a series of missions called Ranger. JPLThe Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is a federally funded research and development center that was established in 1936. It is owned by NASA and managed by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). The laboratory's primary function is the construction and operation of planetary robotic spacecraft, though it also conducts Earth-orbit and astronomy missions. It is also responsible for operating NASA's Deep Space Network. JPL implements programs in planetary exploration, Earth science, space-based astronomy and technology development, while applying its capabilities to technical and scientific problems of national significance.” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”}]”>JPL, however, had grander plans.

The laboratory, having built and helped launch the first U.S. satellite into space, wanted to explore not only the moon, but nearby planets. But as this hour-long episode documents, JPL would be humbled by a string of failures that threatened the lab’s very future. “We didn’t know what we were doing,” one veteran JPL engineer confides in the program, “and there was no one around to tell us.”

Ironically, a successful (although barely so) flyby of VenusVenus, the second planet from the sun, is named after the Roman goddess of love and beauty. After the moon, it is the second-brightest natural object in the night sky. Its rotation (243 Earth days) takes longer than its orbit of the Sun (224.7 Earth days). It is sometimes called Earth's "sister planet" because of their similar composition, size, mass, and proximity to the Sun. It has no natural satellites.” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”}]”>Venus by Mariner 2 would give the United States its first “First in Space.”

And after finally succeeding with its Ranger program, JPL would go on to manage the highly successful Surveyor missions that soft landed on the moon, serving as pathfinders for the Apollo astronauts. Destination Moon relives JPL’s struggles and triumphs at the moon and Venus.

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Destination Moon is Episode 3 in the documentary series “JPL and the Space Age.”

JPL and the Space Age

Source: SciTechDaily