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As NASA prepared to send astronauts to the Moon, it wasn’t sure whether the lunar surface could actually support them. Most planetary scientists said there wouldn’t be a problem. But a few worried that the surface might be covered with powdery dust — a layer deep enough to swallow a lander.
That concern was laid to rest 50 years ago today, when Surveyor 1 landed in a volcanic plain known as the Ocean of Storms.
The Surveyor project was designed to pave the way for Apollo. Among other things, mission planners wanted to know how smooth the surface might be, how many boulders they could expect, and how well the surface reflected the radar waves that would help guide a lunar module to touchdown.
Surveyor 1’s radar system worked perfectly, guiding the craft to a gentle landing — the first soft landing on the Moon. An hour later, its TV camera snapped its first pictures. They showed that Surveyor’s footpads had barely dented the surface.
Over the next couple of weeks, Surveyor transmitted more than 10,000 pictures to Earth. They showed small rocks and boulders around the landing site, and the rims of some nearby craters — a surface that shouldn’t be a problem for a manned lander.
After the long lunar night, Surveyor transmitted even more pictures. It also measured temperatures and took other measurements. The mission helped provide a better understanding of conditions on the lunar surface — paving the way for Apollo.
Script by Damond Benningfield