In January 1961, NASA selected Hughes Aircraft Company to build a series of seven soft-landing vehicles, each weighing about 750 pounds (340 kilograms), to “land gently on the moon, perform chemical analyses of the lunar surface and subsurface and relay back to Earth television pictures of lunar features.”
These vehicles were to be designed and built under the technical direction of JPL and launched in the period of 1963-1966. Unlike the Soviet Luna landers, Surveyor was a true soft-lander, comprising a 10-foot (3-meter) tall vehicle based on a 59.5 pound (27-kilogram) thin-walled aluminum triangular structure with one of three legs at each corner and a large solid-propellant retro rocket engine that comprised over 60 percent of the spacecraft’s overall mass in the center.
The spacecraft was equipped with a Doppler velocity-sensing system that fed information into the spacecraft computer to implement a controllable descent to the surface. Each of the three landing pads also carried aircraft-type shock absorbers and strain gauges to provide data on landing characteristics, important for future Apollo missions.
Surveyor 1, the first in the series, was an unprecedented success. NASA accomplished the first true soft-landing on the Moon on its very first try when the probe landed in the southwestern region of the Ocean of Storms at 06:17:36 UT on June 2, 1966, just 63.6 hours after launch from Cape Canaveral. Touchdown coordinates were announced as 2.46 degrees south latitude and 43.32 degrees west longitude, just 9 miles (14 kilometers) from the planned target. At landing, the spacecraft weighed 649 pounds (294.3 kilograms).
The initial panoramic views from the lunar surface indicated that Surveyor 1 was resting in a 62-mile (100-kilometer) diameter crater that contained boulders more than 3 feet (1 meter) scattered all around.
The photos showed crest lines of low mountains in the distant horizon. The lander transmitted 11,240 high-resolution images over two separate communications sessions by July 6, 1966.
Although the primary mission was completed by July 14, 1966, NASA maintained contact until Jan. 7, 1967. Without doubt, Surveyor 1 was one of the great successes of NASA’s early lunar and interplanetary program.
Siddiqi, Asif A. Beyond Earth: A Chronicle of Deep Space Exploration, 1958-2016. NASA History Program Office, 2018.