IT was 50 years ago today on January 10, 1968, that the Surveyor 7 spacecraft landed on the moon. Touchdown was on the outer rim of the crater Tycho, one of the most prominent features of the moon, with its distinctive “rays” shooting up to 1,000 miles out from it.

It was the last landing on the moon by a Surveyor craft. The Surveyor Programme (program to the Americans) cost nearly $500 million and it was intended to discover as much about the moon as possible before humans were sent to land on our nearest neighbour in space.

Surveyor 7’s most important role was to carry a remote-controlled television camera to take pictures of the moon’s surface and transmit them back to Earth. From shortly after it landed, Surveyor sent back pictures to mission control – in total it would send back more than 21,000 pictures – and also took soil samples with analysers whose results were also transmitted back to Earth.

The National:

Surveyor 7 successfully showed that a landing could take place in that region of the moon and that television pictures could be transmitted back to Earth – an important consideration for Nasa as it wanted the world to see the first man on the moon.

YES, but only five actually made it on to the moon in a soft landing.

There had been plenty unmanned missions to the moon before – the Soviets had crashed Luna 2 on to the moon as far back as 1959 and the Americans sent their Pioneer and Ranger craft either hurtling by or down to destruction – before Luna 9 made the first successful soft landing in February, 1966.

At the time there was a massive space race between the USA and USSR, so international co-operation was at a minimum. Nasa was going hell for leather for a manned landing on the moon by the end of the 1960s, as dictated by President John F Kennedy, so the Surveyor Programme got the hurry-up and Surveyor 1 was launched on May 30 and landed on the Ocean of Storms on the moon’s surface on June 2, 1966, just four months after Luna 9’s success. It was clearly going to be a very close run thing to see who would be the first to land a man on the moon.

The idea was for the Surveyors to soft-land and send back data and pictures from the surface, with later Surveyors also carrying soil analysis equipment – vital for knowing the condition of the terrain the Apollo lunar modules would land on.

Surveyors 2 and 4 were lost, the former pranging into the moon at full speed after a mid-course correction went wrong, and the latter simply disappearing from observation less than three minutes before it was due to land, with a catastrophic explosion feared as the most likely cause of the failure. Surveyors 1, 3, 5, 6, and 7 all soft-landed on the moon and fulfilled their missions, adding greatly to Nasa’s knowledge of what could be expected on the surface.

APART from the two lost Surveyors, each craft – all designed by the Hughes Aircraft Company – combined in a programme that proved without doubt that a spacecraft from Earth could land on the moon and take off again.

Before the Surveyors, there were many experts who doubted that a manned moon landing could happen because they theorised that our satellite was covered in a very thick layer of dust. Surveyor comprehensively demolished that theory.

The National:

The programme also proved that a “lander” could take off again – Surveyor 3 did so unintentionally but Surveyor 6 did so in a planned “hop” across the surface.

THE Apollo programme was already well under way, and despite the setback of the disastrous Apollo I fire which killed three astronauts, Nasa got the programme back on track so that just 12 days after Surveyor 7 landed on the Moon, Apollo 5 tested the Lunar module in space and by the end of 1968, Apollo 8 had carried its three-man crew around the moon – the first men to visit another celestial body.

The way was set for the eventual landing by Apollo 11 on July 20-21, 1969, and the arrival on the moon of its first human visitors, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

Almost incredibly, we know what a Surveyor craft looks like when resting on the moon because the crew of Apollo 12 carried out an extraordinary pinpoint landing just 600 feet away from Surveyor 3. Astronauts Pete Conrad and Al Bean brought back the camera from Surveyor 3 and it can be seen in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. The much-examined object whose authenticity is beyond doubt destroys all those conspiracy theories about the moon landings being faked. For how did Conrad and Bean fetch it home if they hadn’t gone to the moon?