PASADENA, Calif. – Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s first steps on the moon in 1969 wouldn’t have been possible without the many robotic missions there in the preceding years that laid the groundwork for their arrival.
Located in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains in Pasadena, California, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is the place where most of the U.S. space agency’s robotic space explorers are developed and built. Now part of NASA, California Institute of Technology students founded the Jet Propulsion Laboratory more than a decade before the U.S. space agency even existed and was first under the U.S. Army direction.
After the Soviet Union launched, Sputnik, the first successful satellite into Earth orbit in 1957 the pressure of the space race really began to heat up. In response, JPL built Explorer 1. The launched from Cape Canaveral less than three months after Sputnik.
Since Explorer 1 JPL has designed and built spacecraft responsible for what we know about every planet in our solar system, including sending the first spacecraft to the moon and Mars.
Similar to how NASA is using rovers, orbiters and landers to determine how humans could survive on Mars, a similar "robots first" plan was used more than 50 years ago to figure out how to land humans on the moon and get them back to Earth safely.
“All the things we've done go back to that basic idea that something has to go first to pave the way,” NASA JPL historian Erik Conway said.
Conway has been at JPL since 2004 where he keeps a record of the lab’s history by interviewing engineers, scientists and managers.
In May 1961 as President John F. Kennedy told Congress the U.S. “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth” JPL already had begun attempting to send spacecraft for lunar missions.
“There was a lot of skepticism in NASA management really that the launch vehicles that existed could actually do exploration of anything other than nearer space,” Conway said.
JPL designed a series of spacecraft called Rangers that could fly close to the moon and conduct experiments. A majority of those missions -- Rangers 2 through 6 -- ended in failures during launch, landing or when the spacecraft missed its target.
“Ranger 6 got all the way there on target and the cameras didn't work,” Conway said.
In 1964, Ranger 7 became the first successful mission to send back thousands of detailed images of the moon. Those images would lay the way for the Apollo missions.
Images and data from Ranger missions 8 and 9 continued to improve until JPL designed robotic landers called Surveyors that would test a soft landing on the moon and send back images from the surface.
“The next set of missions, the Surveyor soft landers, were important for figuring out whether the surface was strong enough to support a lander, there was a theory that the moon was just a big dust ball, and anything that land on it would just keep sinking, which turns out not to really be true,” Conway said.
Three years after Surveyor 1 landed on the moon, Armstrong would become the first human to walk on the moon.
Now, as NASA plans to return humans to the moon under the Artemis program it again plans to lead with robotic missions. However, this time, those robots will be primarily from commercial partners.
This summer, NASA announced it has selected 12 new science robotic missions to help study the moon’s surface, including a lunar rover called MoonRanger led by private company Astrobotic Technology.
JPL started following a similar path with robotic missions in the 1960s to pave the way for humans on Mars in the 2030s.
First with orbiting spacecraft called Mariners, then with the first successful spacecraft landing on the Martian surface, Viking 1, 1976.
In 1996 NASA’s Mars Pathfinder rover demonstrated it is possible to drive around on the Martian surface. Since then, JPL has successfully managed four more rovers-- Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity and most recently in 2012, Curiosity -- searching for evidence of past life on the red planet and exploring options for a human settlement.
“Sending astronauts to Mars will be enormously expensive and you want to send them to the best places and the way you find those best places is with through robotic exploration,” Conway said.
During News 6’s visit to JPL in June, the lab was preparing its fifth Martian rover, known as Mars 2020, set to launch next year from Cape Canaveral.
Standing in the spacecraft assembly viewing gallery at JPL, Mars 2020 deputy project scientist Katie Morgan said that while the rover inside the clean room below may look like its predecessor Curiosity it’s very different.
“At NASA JPL we've been building rovers and spacecraft for a long time. So while it looks really complex, you know, we're experts at doing this kind of thing,” Morgan said. “This floor probably looks very similar to the way the floor looked when they were building the Curiosity rover but it's really the insides of the rover that has brand new technology and capability that we've never had before."
One of the important upgrades includes a new wheel design for the rover. After seeing the wear on Curiosity's wheels in the last seven years and with no AAA on Mars, Morgan said engineers went back to the drawing board.
Morgan said Curiosity's wheels actually had holes in them intentionally that spelled JPL in Morse code which was to help with the rover's cameras to detect wheel tracks.
"Our cameras on this rover are so much better that we don't need to do that anymore," Morgan said.
For Mars 2020, the team at JPL designed "very, very robust wheels" with a different design, said Morgan, and then put them through all kinds of testing. So much testing, "we had to come up with a new definition of what a scratch was, because these wheels didn't have any after they went through all the testing that Curiosity's wheels have gone through," Morgan said.
As a result, Morgan is not concerned about the wheels for NASA's next Mars rover.
The other difference between Curiosity and Mars 2020 is that technology tested on this mission will serve as a proving ground for human missions, according to Art Thompson, deputy manager of assembly, test and launch operations for Mars 2020.
An instrument called MOXIE that will ingest Mars atmospheric carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. ”It will prove that it is a feasible thing to do, which will pave the way for future human missions,” Thompson said.
Another change is that Mars 2020 has the ability to store samples. Pieces of the planets history will be collected by Mars 2020, in the form of rocks and soil samples, and be brought back to Earth by other missions. The most recent rover, Curiosity has a built in lab but Thompson said it is still not as good as testing samples in real laboratory run by humans.
“A human geologist on the surface of Mars can do a lot more in an hour than the two rovers could do in their entire life, just by looking around and knowing, intuitively, that's an interesting rock, that's not an interesting rock,” Thompson said. “So having the ability to have pristine samples returned to Earth will give us so much more knowledge than we're able to do with in-situ science, but it's very good science.”
Mars 2020 is scheduled to launch next July on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, continuing JPL’s legacy of paving the way for future human arrival.