"I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth," said President John F. Kennedy on May 25, 1961.
By then, Kuiper's group was officially organized as the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, no longer subgrouped into some other campus unit. But they were operating mainly out of Quonset huts left over from World War II, even as their ranks tripled to 30 in less than a year, adding Meinel and others like Tom Gehrels, whose own pioneering work at the UA would continue for 50 years.
Kuiper was a demanding and brash leader, but took to his observational work with zeal and in 1961, was appointed to serve on NASA's Space Science Steering Committee, which had started work on what became the Ranger and Surveyor series of missions.
Jet Propulsion Lab's first proposal for a moon probe was complete within three weeks of Sputnik's launch, envisioning a launch as early as June 1958. The Ranger program, begun in 1959 as scout missions designed to fly straight toward the moon with cameras recording the descent, had started dismally. The first two launches, in 1961, failed to leave orbit. The third lost contact with Earth. The fourth suffered from a failed sequence. The fifth lost contact with Earth.
After the first five failures, NASA reorganized the program, appointing Kuiper in 1963 to lead the imaging team as Chief Experimenter for the next four Ranger missions. Ranger 6 launched Jan. 30, 1964, and according to a Universal Newsreel, was the smoothest launch the program had experienced. The 800-pound capsule, "like any tourist, equipped with cameras," performed a perfect 66-hour flight until the crucial moment, when the cameras failed to operate. So, despite a near-perfect impact less than a mile from its target in the Sea of Tranquility, Ranger 6 became the most devastating failure yet.
NASA's future—and the whole lunar program—was on the line when Ranger 7 launched on July 18.
Whitaker, who selected the target landing sites for Ranger 6 and 7, says the trials and errors might have been expected because, like any pioneers, they were making things up as they went along. For Ranger 7, the Experimenter team added a Tibetan prayer wheel to their table at the Jet Propulsion Lab, visible in black-and-white press photos from NASA.
The landing site was between Mare Nubium and Oceanus Procellarum and after the mission, it took the name Mare Cognitum—The Sea That Has Become Known.
The unaided eye views the moon at its distance of 240,000 miles. The best telescopes on Earth—what Kuiper and Whitaker used for the Lunar Atlas—brings the view to within 500 miles. Ranger 7 chopped that down to a half-mile vantage.
"The amount of information that has been gained about the lunar surface is truly remarkable," Kuiper said when he announced Ranger 7's preliminary results. "The best resolution obtained is about a foot and a half. This is a thousands times better than the best photographs which were available up to yesterday. A thousand."
"The method of attack here has been tremendously successful. This program has had great difficulties in the past, but that is because it was a tremendously ambitious program," added Kuiper, addressing some public skepticism about the cost of the until-then unsuccessful Ranger missions.
Six television cameras—the A and B cameras and four sets of the P cameras —on board Ranger captured the lunar surface. The alternating A and B cameras produced 200 images apiece and the other 3,900 came from the P cameras.
JPL Director William Pickering was ecstatic. "It is not a case of picking out an occasional good picture. Every picture that has been looked at so far has been a good picture," he said.
So began the era of instant science, Whitaker says.
On national television, Kuiper unveiled some of the first images, the tip of the iceberg really, but the Experimenters rushed to prepare those few pictures. "Everybody has worked to the limit of his strength to get this ready for the conference," Kuiper said.
Whitaker says that as the spacecraft was closing in on the moon, the scientists could hear the signals coming in from Ranger 7, just a tone, that meant the video was coming in (a tone that Ranger 6 never produced). The signal from Ranger 7 was recorded by a NASA tracking station in the Mohave Desert, so even while the JPL crew was popping champagne, the films themselves had to be driven the 100-some miles to Pasadena.
The last shot from Ranger 7 shows an area about 100 feet by 60 feet, but it's cut off about two thirds by static, the transmission interrupted by the spacecraft crashing into the moon.