Oldies & Odd­i­ties Moon dust up close

FROM THE AT­TIC TO THE ARCHIVES

Air & Space Smithsonian - - Front Page - WIL­LIAM MELLBERG

THREE YEARS BE­FORE MIL­LIONS

of peo­ple around the world watched Neil Arm­strong step onto the moon’s sur­face, I was among a some­what smaller group look­ing at tele­vised pho­tos of the sur­face sent back by the first Amer­i­can space­craft to land on the moon. On June 2, 1966, when Sur­veyor I touched down in the lu­nar Ocean of Storms, I was a 14-year-old with a room­ful of model rock­ets and a dad who worked on the Sur­veyor pro­gram. My fa­ther, Frank Mellberg, was the Sur­veyor pro­ject man­ager at Chicagob­ased Bell & How­ell, which de­signed and built the zoom lens of the space­craft’s cam­era. The so­phis­ti­cated lens was the pri­mary sci­en­tific in­stru­ment on Sur­veyor I. It tele­vised more than 11,000 high-qual­ity im­ages. Those pic­tures gave sci­en­tists their first close look at the lu­nar sur­face. The Soviet Union’s Luna-9 had landed on the moon four months ear­lier but took only a few panora­mas, with com­par­a­tively low res­o­lu­tion.

Bell & How­ell was a sub­con­trac­tor to Hughes Air­craft Com­pany, which built Sur­veyor. The Jet Propul­sion Lab­o­ra­tory in Cal­i­for­nia man­aged the pro­ject for NASA. When my fa­ther met with rep­re­sen­ta­tives from Hughes and JPL in 1961 to dis­cuss the con­tract to pro­duce the lens, they told him about the moon’s vac­uum and tem­per­a­ture ex­tremes. “But no one re­ally knew what the moon’s sur­face was like,” he re­calls. “Some sci­en­tists thought it was rugged and hard. Others said it was pow­dery and soft. One man pre­dicted Sur­veyor would sink into 12 feet of dust. De­spite this un­cer­tainty, I had to fin­ish our pro­posal in less than four days.”

Bell & How­ell won the con­tract, and Dad as­sem­bled a team to de­velop Amer­ica’s first eye on the moon. Sur­veyor’s cam­era was de­signed to scan the sur­face after touch­down, pro­vid­ing de­tailed pic­tures of rocks, craters, and lu­nar soil. The lens pro­duced both wide-an­gle and tele­photo im­ages. Count­ing the num­ber of ro­ta­tions of the lens gears en­abled sci­en­tists to de­ter­mine the sizes and dis­tances of rocks and craters. “We dis­cov­ered that a last-minute ad­just­ment was needed for Sur­veyor I’s lens,” he says. “Our test­ing had been done on Earth. But in a vac­uum, the lens would be slightly out of fo­cus. So we had to set the lens slightly out of fo­cus on Earth so that it would be in sharp fo­cus on the moon.”

Build­ing the lens was a chal­lenge. So was the de­vel­op­ment of the Sur­veyor space­craft and its At­las-cen­taur rocket, both of which en­coun­tered test fail­ures. I re­mem­ber that at one point, my dad said, “It’ll never work.” Sur­veyor I was launched on May 30, 1966. Fol­low­ing a 63-hour jour­ney, the space­craft be­gan its fi­nal ap­proach to the moon. In the Mellberg home, all eyes were glued to our tele­vi­sion. Sur­veyor I made a per­fect land­ing. “I couldn’t be­lieve it,” Dad muses to­day. “The odds against suc­cess were such that I didn’t think the first one would make it. I don’t think any­one did.”

Thirty-six min­utes after touch­down, Sur­veyor I trans­mit­ted it first pic­ture, show­ing a foot­pad rest­ing firmly on the lu­nar sur­face. Ad­di­tional im­ages re­vealed a level ter­rain lit­tered with rocks and craters of all sizes. Moun­tains could be seen on the hori­zon.

Four more Sur­veyor space­craft touched down on the moon. Apollo 17 ge­ol­o­gist-as­tro­naut Har­ri­son Sch­mitt told me, “Pro­ject Sur­veyor re­moved any doubt that it was pos­si­ble for Amer­i­can as­tro­nauts to land on the moon and ex­plore its sur­face.” In No­vem­ber 1969 the Apollo 12 as­tro­nauts landed near Sur­veyor III. When they re­turned to Earth, they brought the Sur­veyor cam­era with them. It was tested at Bell & How­ell’s op­ti­cal lab about six months later. My fa­ther and I both held that cam­era in our hands. It was a highly emo­tional ex­pe­ri­ence for Dad. Here was some­thing that spent 31 months on the moon—some­thing he helped cre­ate.

The Sur­veyor III cam­era, with its Bell & How­ell lens, is on per­ma­nent dis­play in the Na­tional Air and Space Mu­seum.

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