In the list of NASA's spaceflight programs of the 1960s, ranked in order of familiarity to the public, there's little doubt that Project Apollo is at the top. Next is probably Project Mercury--most people have likely heard of the "capsules" in which astronauts Shepard and Glenn flew in America's first manned spaceflight and first manned orbital flight (along with four others--can you name them?). Further down the list is Gemini, the relatively obscure but very important program that bridged Mercury and Apollo. Then it gets tougher. How about unmanned programs? There's a slim chance that the names Explorer, Pioneer or Mariner may trigger a tiny flash of recognition. But there's a name on the list that almost certainly goes totally unrecognized by all but the most ardent space buff. That name is "Ranger."
It's a shame, really. Ranger was one of the most technically and operationally challenging space programs ever. Marred for years by a frustrating series of failures, the program finally, in 1964, accomplished its goal of taking close-up photographs of the surface of the moon. The first six missions failed for a variety of reasons, most connected with the fact that America was then in the very early stages of learning how to fly in space. The last three--Rangers 7, 8 and 9--were spectacularly successful. These spacecraft, built and operated by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of the California Institute of Technology, each returned thousands of stunning black-and-white images as they plunged to destruction on the moon. Eclipsed by the later Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter programs, the pioneering achievements of Ranger quickly faded into obscurity as public interest focused on the manned Apollo missions. Yet Ranger enormously--indeed, almost immeasurably--influenced the development of America's capabilities to build, test, launch and fly unmanned interplanetary spacecraft. Ranger's legacy lives on in every U.S. mission to Mars, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and beyond. Its story deserves to be far more widely known than it is.
Thanks to "Lunar Impact: The NASA History of Project Ranger," you can now learn that story. Eminent space historian R. Cargill Hall's book originally appeared in 1977 as NASA SP-4210, a volume in the NASA History Series. This Dover edition is a republication of the long-out-of-print original. The book is, in a word, superb. Dr. Hall presents the story of Ranger in a very accessible, fast-moving yet comprehensive narrative. His detailed descriptions of the human, operational and technical "nuts and bolts" aspects of the program are perfectly balanced. Unlike some works produced under NASA auspices, "Lunar Impact" is not overloaded with page after seemingly endless page of minutia about organizational responsibilities, reporting chains and memo wars--subjects dear to bureaucrats' hearts. There's some of that, of course. No book about any government program can ignore these factors. But, thankfully, there's not that much.
"Lunar Impact" is based largely on primary source documents and on interviews with Ranger participants. Written just a decade after the events described, while the memories of the scientists, engineers and managers were still fresh, it has a compelling immediacy matched by very few other spaceflight history books. You can't help but be enthralled, fascinated and, most important, educated by Dr. Hall's outstanding story of America's very first spacecraft designed to explore another body in the Solar System. Ranger had a well-defined beginning, middle and end, and interested readers can comprehend the entire program in a way that may not be possible for later, more complex missions. Dr. Hall's definitive work sets the standard for books of this nature. I can't recommend it too highly for all readers, and especially for space enthusiasts. They just don't get any better than this.