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Moon landing, moon return: Returning to something known, yet unknown

Where were you when the U.S. landed on the moon 50 years ago?

I was watching it on my sister’s tiny black and white TV in Sacramento. I was 13. It was so exciting and somehow didn’t seem to be real.

My uncle in Reno was one of those who didn’t believe it was real. He thought the whole thing was done on a film set in Arizona or New Mexico or some similar place with plenty of barren space. I remember even at the age of 13 that didn’t make any sense. Why would we do that?

My husband’s father, Bob Forney, did his part in helping make that first moon landing possible. He wasn’t part of the NASA moon crew, but he helped design and develop the guidance systems on Ranger and Surveyor pre-moon landing vehicles. I use the term vehicle because my husband said that’s how his father and others referred to them.

I always wanted to do a feature story with my father-in-law, but he was a very private person and wouldn’t consider it.

I know that he finished his last test at Cal Tech in Pasadena (the university made famous by “The Big Bang”) at the same time he learned his wife was in labor with their first child. That was Aug. 25, 1949. That child was my husband, Tom.

Even before finishing his last test Bob had a job lined up at JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) also right there in Pasadena. At that time JPL was affiliated with Cal Tech. It was later taken over by NASA, but my husband said his father thought it should have remained with the university.

Bob’s was the kind of work that meant he arrived home after Tom and his two younger brothers were in bed and he left before they got up (early years at least). Family vacation meant that Bob would stop at pay phones along the way to call in to discuss things. (I understand it drove my mother-in-law crazy).

So how did his work and those of other scientists and engineers at JPL help with the moon landing?

Well, Bob helped design the first unmanned vehicles to orbit and then land on the moon.

Ranger was the first vehicle to orbit the moon. It took pictures and helped determine the best location for a future planned landing. A look at the JPL websites shows that Rangers were involved in various Lunar projects beginning in 1961.

That might not seem that big a deal when satellites and other information gathering spacecraft are going to Mars and way out into the solar system, but there always needs to be a beginning.

This was the first time that the United States or anyone had photographs to give the space industry detailed references of the moon’s surface.

The Ranger was capable of transmitting images back to earth as it flew around the moon. Each of the Ranger series was destroyed on impact as they crashed onto the moon’s surface — mission completed.

The Surveyor was the first unmanned object to land on the moon.

Tom said there was a lot of talk and concern about what the surface of the moon was really like. Some thought that the surface was deep in dust and that a vehicle would just disappear. As it turned out there was only a few inches of dust accumulation on the surface, evidenced by the footprints left behind during the first moonwalk.

But the Surveyor was the first unmanned spacecraft to achieve a soft landing on the moon. The Rangers were allowed to just crash, but that wasn’t what was needed for a manned landing.

Although the first Surveyor landing was a success, the second one failed. Surveyor 4 also crashed. And with each mission those who worked at JPL probably scrambled to correct what went wrong.

Tom said that Surveyor had a robotic scoop that could gather up moon dust and debris to analyze. It’s a primitive achievement by today’s capabilities, but at the time it was incredible.

The seven Surveyors in one way or another helped make it possible for that first Apollo landing.

I remember being very excited that we’d landed on the moon. It was made even more exciting that we were the first to achieve that mission.

I remember that I couldn’t figure out why we went to the moon for six crewed and uncrewed landings and then nothing for years.

I know that NASA plans to have the Orion spacecraft make a trip around the moon in 2020. The moon’s south pole is the setting for the next crewed landing set for 2024 in the Artemis spacecraft.

I find this fairly exciting. I find it more interesting to think about people living on the moon rather than those space stations they’ve been using. I know that everything takes time and study and money, especially money. So we’ll see what really happens. Just landing there was probably something my father-in-law saw as the beginnings of something bigger.

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