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Thread: 54th Anniversary of the Launch of the First Lunar Orbiter

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    rwanttaja's Avatar
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    54th Anniversary of the Launch of the First Lunar Orbiter

    Nowadays, in the era of CAD/CAM and digital everything, we tend to forget how things were in the early days. We can digitally model an airfoil to discover its secrets, so the Wright brothers' home-made wind tunnel seems amazingly crude. But it was cutting edge, back then.

    Space exploration was no different...and the early days are much more recent. So let us return to an era where men were men, women were women, and steely-eyed missile men were steely-eyed missile men.

    Back in the early ‘60s, JFK said, “Go to the Moon.” Before humans could land on the Moon, of course, they needed to know WHERE they could land. So NASA decided to build three types of spacecraft to photograph the moon. The Ranger series engaged in a series of kamikaze dives, swooping in at the Moon and transmitting photos until impact. Surveyor would soft-land at proposed manned sites.

    But NASA needed something that would fly around the moon for a long period, and send sufficient photos back to map the Moon’s surface. A Lunar Orbiter.

    Boeing was awarded the contract in 1964. The Lunar Orbiter vehicles were designed and built at the Kent Space Center, where I worked until my retirement three years ago. They were about three-quarters the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, and carried a camera made by Kodak.
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    Boeing delivered eight vehicles to NASA, five were launched and were totally successful. 99% of the Moon’s surface was mapped, with resolution as fine as one meter. Even today, that’s pretty good.

    The first vehicle was launched almost 54 years ago, on 10 August 1966. For a week and half, it mapped the moon. Why so short a mission?

    Because used up its entire roll of film. Literally...Two cameras, both with film cartridges. The film was developed onboard, then optically scanned and sent digitally back to Earth.

    One day, though, a Boeing engineer noted an interesting circumstance. LO-1’s upcoming orbit path would bring the Earth directly above the Moon’s horizon. A real opportunity for a spectacular photo.

    NASA said no. They had good reasons. Only so much film was carried by the spacecraft…any non-mapping photos taken would leave a gap in coverage. Besides, the attitude profile for that orbit was already defined. Changing it might lead to mistakes. The Orbiter computer had memory measured in Bytes (Not Gigabytes, not Megabytes, not Kilobytes, BYTES) and if it messed up…the bird would tumble. Not only would it not take pictures, its high-rate antenna would no longer point at the Earth so they couldn't talk to it.

    Worse, the Orbiter's solar arrays were not articulated...that is, they weren't installed on booms that could be rotated or angled to point at the sun. They were fixed to the body, and if the body no longer could point at the Sun.... well, the batteries would die, and that would be the end of the mission.

    The data tag on the vehicle might say “Boeing,” but the big painted logo (and, effectively, the title) was owned by NASA.

    Word came down: No off-schedule photographs.

    But…the Boeing engineers involved were pretty confident. The Boeing night shift manager wanted to try it. The Boeing flight dynamicist, Ted Hanson, repeatedly confirmed the orbital geometry, both by hand and with slide rule. They only had a short window to get the picture they wanted…and that window was approaching quickly. He and the manager, Dale Shellhorn were convinced it would work.

    The Boeing manager gave the go-ahead despite NASA’s refusal. The commands went out, the vehicle responded, and did

    SOMETHING.

    Did it get the right picture? Who knew?…it would take hours to develop the film on the spacecraft and downlink the scan to Earth. But communications continued; there was a gap in mapping coverage but they at least retained command of the bird.

    NASA was furious. They demanded Shellhorn be fired immediately.

    But in the meantime, the photo was received and reassembled. NASA Public Relations saw it, and plastered it around the world:

    The first photo ever taken of the Earth, with another major space body in the foreground.
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    Shellhorn kept his job.

    Two years later, the Apollo 8 astronauts duplicated the shot, with a hand-held camera and without the “venetian blind” artifacts of the Orbiter photo.

    But Boeing was first…..

    My own connection to Lunar Orbiter is generational. I started at Boeing in 1981, when there were still a number of engineers (all nearing retirement) who had worked the program. They're the people who taught me space engineering. I of course caught a few peripheral stories about Lunar Orbiter when these men talked. One of them even had a standard phase when scornful of a design: "That didn't work on Looney Orbiter, and it won't work here!" (RIP Dick Kolesar...who had flown P-40s during WWII).

    But I do have one more-direct connection. I started at Boeing in early 1981, and transferred to the Boeing Kent Space Center in the fall. Back then, Boeing engineers worked in the "bullpen" environment: Large rooms with rows of desks side-by side. No cubicles, no privacy.

    The program I was transferred had just taken over one of these bullpen rooms, and I had my selection of desks. I picked one at random near the windows. Out of idle curiousity, I went through the desk drawers.

    In one I found a stack of magazines. Playboy, from the early '60s.

    On top of them was a small white box. I opened it...and found a pair of Lunar Orbiter cufflinks. I've kept them ever since, other than lending them to Seattle's Museum of Flight for a Boeing 100th Anniversary display.
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    The holder was 3D printed, using the EAA Solidworks for design....

    Ron Wanttaja

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    FlyingRon's Avatar
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    The museum didn't want your Playboys?

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    rwanttaja's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by FlyingRon View Post
    The museum didn't want your Playboys?
    I didn't offer them. Was still puzzling through the crossword on page 87 of the November 1962 issue. :-)

    Ron Wanttaja

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    In '69 I came home, to my mom's house after a date, set up my 35 mm camera on a tripod and took pictures of the moon landing off the TV. Not good reception back then with just the antenna on the roof, but I got them just the same.
    Bob

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    I remember Walter Kronkite relaying information on how to take pictures off your TV screen in the lead up to the landing. I used to follow that stuff pretty closely. My grandfather, a TV repairman, had gifted me an ancient Philco TV set and I had tapped into the speaker so I could watch it with headphones late at night. I had Revell models of the CSM and LM that I'd demonstrate the mission with for anybody who asked.

    I didn't end up taking pictures because they said you had to have a leaf rather than focal plane shutter, and I wasn't smart enough to know my cheapo instamatic 44 I had was a leaf shutter. I still likely would have to put a dead flashcube in it to make the shutter slow down enough.

    I'm glad I did NOT take the advice not to try to shoot the next-to-last Discovery launch. Got some great shots of that. I tried to post them here but they are too big to upload directly, I'll have to put them up on flickr.

    IMG_3156.jpg by Ron Natalie, on Flickr
    IMG_3084.jpg by Ron Natalie, on Flickr
    Last edited by FlyingRon; 07-28-2020 at 04:52 AM.

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    I know this off topic but I have the generational connection experience when I went to work at Lockheed Georgia in 1984. My immediate boss was a gunner’s mate on an LST who to a kamikaze just below the gun tub and was the only one of his gun crew to survive. I sat next to a guy,Richard B, who was waist gunner in a B17 and ditched twice in the channel from combat damage. He got sent home as an instructor after that. My lead was a Flight Engineer who informed me that he was “still on strike” from Eastern. Frank was an awesome guy and superb mentor. Most of the lead engineers were from the original design groups for the C-130, 141 or C-5. They were all sharp guys and always on their game.
    Dave Shaw
    EAA 67180 Lifetime
    Learn to Build, Build to Fly, Fly for Fun

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    I'm not an engineer or an astronomy graduate so after the Apollo landers had been on the moon for a few years I called up the Lunar Lander office at Grumman and assured them that the LL's would not fly off spontaneously into space. My confidence was Laplacian and not LaGrangian. Planning was going on for a Mars Lander.

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    rwanttaja's Avatar
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    One of the things Boeing built for Lunar Orbiter was a three-story tall vacuum chamber.
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    It was used for a number of subsequent programs, including a couple I was involved in. These chambers always include observation windows so you can look inside.

    The story goes, they were testing a spacecraft in there one day when a visiting politician came by on a tour. They turned on the interior lights, and had the politician look at the spacecraft.

    "Right now," they told him, "The chamber has a vacuum equivalent to that of space!"

    The politician looked puzzled. "But why is it just sitting there?"

    "Huh?"

    "With all the air gone, shouldn't it be floating around inside?" The guy believed that air provided gravity....

    Ron Wanttaja

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