June 2 – But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?

Today’s Factismal: The USA’s first soft-landing on another planet took place 48 years ago today when Surveyor 1 landed on the Moon.

There’s an old saying in aeronautics: any walking that you can walk away from is a good one. But there hadn’t been many landings like that in the early space program. Instead, most of the probes either stayed in orbit going round and round or fell to the ground with what would have been a sickening grunch if there were any air on the Moon. And if we wanted to put men on the Moon (and we did) then we needed to be able to land somewhat more discretely.  Figuring out how to do that was the goal of the aptly-named “Surveyor” probes.

The Surveyor 1 Probe (Image courtesy NASA)

The Surveyor 1 Probe
(Image courtesy NASA)

These probes were designed to scout out potential landing sites on the Moon and then actually land on them. Though the Soviets had claimed a soft landing earlier in the year, theirs had been less of a landing and more of a minor crash; we hoped to improve on that. The Surveyor probe sent back television images that were then used to guide the probe down to its landing. In addition, the probe took high resolution still images that would be used to decide where the Apollo missions should land.

MoonOf course, the exploration of the Moon continues today. If you’d like to get involved, then you should visit the Moon Zoo. You’ll look at images from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and sort out the craters, the hills, and the other features; you may even discover a new feature and get to name it!

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