Bob Conover gently, reverently removes a pristine white cloth to reveal a golden metal box. A black frame and legs surround the gold and keep it hovering about a foot above the worktable. There are silvery knobs and open spaces in the sides of the box where other parts attach to it. To the untrained eye, it’s just a shiny, odd-looking industrial piece of some kind, freshly manufactured. But Bob knows better. Bob knows that this is a component of the Ranger spacecraft, and it is an important part of the history of space fight and even our country. That’s why he is so delighted to see it again, to hold it again fifty years after he first used parts like these to build several versions of Ranger as the NASA program’s lead engineer.
The purpose of the Ranger Project was to take photographs of the lunar surface in preparation for manned missions to the moon. Half a century after the original project was completed, Bob leads a whole new team to build Ranger once again. "[Jet Propolsion Laboratory] asked me if I thought I could do it. I told them I could assemble that spacecraft in my sleep!"
This time, Bob’s team doesn’t just consist of NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineers (though there are definitely a few in the bunch!). It’s a group of diverse Los Angeles community members – students, young professionals, and retirees – who want to share Ranger’s special story with the world. First, though, they have to take the dozens of components from different versions of Ranger, which are strewn about folding tables in an empty former administrative office building at the California Science Center, and they have to put them together. To get this done, they have three very important resources: passion, an “all-hands-on-deck” attitude, and most importantly Bob, one of the only people in the entire world who has ever put one of these spacecraft together.
Building Ranger today is not a part of a pressure-filled “Space Race,” but rather a labor of love for which the volunteers can take the time needed to make it the best spacecraft possible. They come to work in blocks of 2-4 hours, one or two people or even five or six at a time. They drill. They paint. They clean and assemble parts. And best of all, they learn. They learn about the history of the Ranger project and why it was so important. They learn the stories of the men who built the original probes, reveling in Bob’s fond memories and incredible accomplishments. And they learn how to make something old new again, so that a whole new generation can discover the ingenuity, imagination, dedication, and passion it took to create the original Ranger probes that got humanity “one small step” closer to walking on the moon.
Check out the video below to hear the volunteers talk about their experience building Ranger!