Painting Of Lunar Landscape

Martian Probe: The First Step Towards a Moon Landing

Photos Of Milton Trageser For Brochure
Phil Bowditch For Brochure
Norman Sears
Ramon Alonso with Apollo Guidance Computer in MIT Film

Before the Moon, engineers dreamed of a mission to Mars. 

In the late 1950’s, engineers at MIT were building a probe that they could send to MARS. At the time, this technology was merely a fantasy found in popular sci-fi movies. But these engineers had the chops to make this a reality. They would build an unmanned probe, which would fly by Mars and take high-resolution photographs at close range. These space engineers had figured out something revolutionary to make the Mars probe a possibility: inertial navigation. They never flew the probe to Mars, they just made a prototype, but it was enough to prove to NASA that the MIT Instrumentation Lab held the key to putting the first man on the moon. The Mars Probe was a way to solve the problems associated with an extended space flight. And it worked, MIT IL got the first Apollo contract to invent and then build from scratch a brand new guidance and navigation system to get man to the moon and home again.

The MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, later renamed Draper after its founder, gained its experience in inertial systems for ballistic missiles, submarines, and aircraft in WWII. Draper enlisted the aid of Avco Corp., the Reaction Motors Division of Thiokol Chemical Corp., and MIT's Lincoln Laboratory to design a vehicle that could be launched from earth into a path that would take it to Mars. En route there would be periodic navigation fixes by a star-tracker which would be used to correct inaccuracies in the probe's flight path. At Mars, the probe would take a single high-resolution photograph of about 40% of the planet's surface and then begin its return trip to earth. Upon returning, a reentry vehicle would detach itself from the rest of the probe and return to the earth's surface to be recovered at sea with its cargo of film.

Though it received quite a lot of press attention, the project was never completed as it was quickly overshadowed by the Apollo program. Although the concept of the probe was a modest one, there were several major obstacles which had to be overcome. The most groundbreaking would be the concept of a low-power yet highly accurate computer which would coordinate the functions of the probe. It used an indestructible read-only memory and served as the starting point for the development of the Apollo computer. A number of other features of the probe were also further developed during the Apollo program, but the probe's most significant benefit was that it fostered the team that would go on to engineer the Apollo spacecraft navigation system. In 1961, when Draper was given the job of developing Apollo's guidance and navigation system, this group's presence allowed Draper to offer concrete solutions to NASA with far less development time than would have been otherwise required. Without the Mars Probe project, the Apollo missions may not have been successful.