NASA’s JPL and the Space Age: Destination Moon – “We Didn’t Know What We Were Doing”

NASA's Ranger Spacecraft Approaching the Moon

An artist’s concept of NASA’s Ranger spacecraft approaching the Moon. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

After the establishment of NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s first major assignment was to explore the moon, taking close-up images before crash landing as part of a series of missions called Ranger. JPL, however, had grander plans.

The laboratory, having built and helped launch the first U.S. satellite into space, wanted to explore not only the moon, but nearby planets. But as this hour-long episode documents, JPL would be humbled by a string of failures that threatened the lab’s very future. “We didn’t know what we were doing,” one veteran JPL engineer confides in the program, “and there was no one around to tell us.”

Ironically, a successful (although barely so) flyby of Venus by Mariner 2 would give the United States its first “First in Space.”

And after finally succeeding with its Ranger program, JPL would go on to manage the highly successful Surveyor missions that soft landed on the moon, serving as pathfinders for the Apollo astronauts. Destination Moon relives JPL’s struggles and triumphs at the moon and Venus.

Destination Moon is Episode 3 in the documentary series “JPL and the Space Age.”

JPL and the Space Age Video Series

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