Fifty years ago, Surveyor 1 landed on the moon. June 2, 1966. Here is how it appeared to me.
NASA had conducted a good number of programs by that time, and I knew how they went. The first couple of missions were "test" flights; after all, they always failed. For instance, the first satellite program, Vanguard, was not a good "vanguard" at all. The first launch blew up on the pad.
The Mercury and Gemini programs went through a minimum of two unmanned flights before they'd chance a manned launch. Mercury Redstone did that, as did Gemini Titan. Mercury Atlas had FIVE. The Gemini Atlas first launch was a complete failure.
And I remember try after try after try for the Ranger program, the previous lunar program. I was waiting and waiting for pictures from very close to the moon. Five tries were complete failures. I felt terrible.
Then Ranger Six had a nearly perfect flight . . . but the camera didn't work. Ugh, I was getting frustrated. And finally Rangers 7, 8, and 9 worked very very well.
So when I heard about Surveyor 1's flight, I was truly happy about it, but had very very low expectations. Of course it was going to crash, I thought to myself. Landing on the Moon ought to be much more complicated than crashing into it. I planned to watch anyway.
Watch the NASA Control room is what I did. Surveyor got lower and lower, over the Moon, and I kept waiting for the bad news. It could be "loss of contact" or "failure of rocket ignition" or some other interesting phrase.
I was listening for those. So I almost missed the very calm statement that it had landed and was on the lunar surface.
My double take only lasted about five seconds. It did take a while for me to truly digest the news.
In the meantime, I started waiting for any possible report that the robot had sunk into the deep, deep surface dust we had feared. At that point, we still didn't know if it was possible for anything to rest on the surface.
Of course, we now know that the surface dust is pretty thin. And I had a great time looking at the pictures we got.
Was the "jinx" broken? I was disappointed that it seemed to be still around, after Surveyor 2 failed. But then Surveyor 3 succeeded! Hurray! Oh, but Surveyor 4 failed. Nuts. Hey, wait, Surveyor 5 was a success!
Never learned why our abilities seemed to be on-again-off-again there.
But the experience impressed me enough that I wrote a term paper on Surveyor 1. And I had deja vu a decade later, when Viking 1 also made a great touchdown on the first try.