PASADENA, Calif. -- Lunar Orbiter 1, America's flying photographic laboratory, became the first U.S. spacecraft to orbit another heavenly body besides earth Sunday, when it went into a near-perfect path around the moon.
"The orbit is well within the nominal lunar orbit," Project Manager Gilbert H. Nelson told a press conference.
Scientists said the first Lunar Orbiter' s objectives had been realized -- to orbit a three-axis craft.
The second objective, to photograph possible manned landing sites on the moon, will start later this week.
"Everything is within the capabilities of the spacecraft to carry out its mission " Nelson said.
Spacecraft Manager Israel Taback said that "All the components are acting as they were designed to do. It's going exactly as it's told to do up there. The only unusual thing I can really say is something up there is shining on us."
RUSSIA'S LUNA 10 went into orbit around the moon earlier this year and Americas Surveyor spacecraft made a pinpoint landing on the moon last June, returning thousands of crystal-clear pictures of the lunar landscape.
Lunar Orbiter's mission was the next step in the American-Russian competition to land a man on the moon.
If subsequent maneuvers are successful, the unmanned, 850-pound spacecraft should take its first picture of the moon's surface Wednesday from an altitude as low as 28 miles and transmit it to earth the following day about 4 p.m.
Lunar Orbiter, the first of five such vehicles, was shot into orbit of the moon at 10:34 a.m. yesterday when retro rockets were fired on a radio signal from earth and burned for 10 minutes.
THE REVERSE rockets slowed the velocity of the spacecraft and dropped it well into the moon's gravitational field to achieve an orbit that was described as "nominal" by engineers at Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Lunar Orbiter's actual orbit was 119 miles by 1,160 miles. It was traveling around the moon once about every three hours, 37 minutes and 36 seconds. Orbit was achieved by what is called "deboosting" -- a slowing of the space craft's velocity. When the vehicle was 823 miles from the moon it was traveling at a speed of 4.405 miles per hour. After deboosting its speed was 1,510 miles per hour.
Scientists said the phenomenal part was that the actual and planned deboost speeds were within a half-mile per hour.
Another debooster maneuver was scheduled to be carried out within the next few days to drop the spacecraft to an altitude of 28 miles.
LUNAR ORBITER 1 was the first U.S. spacecraft to achieve orbit of the moon. Russia has succeeded in such a feat.
Maior objectives of lunar orbiter include photography of nine moon sites to find a safe landing spot for Apollo astronauts who are expected to make their journey by 1970.
During the picture-taking phase, lunar orbiter will attempt to set a shot of surveyor 1, wnich made a soft-landing on the moon June 1. The two lenses aboard lunar orbiter will be able to discern objects as small as card tables on the moon's surface.
The surveyor pictures will be compared with those which scientists hope to get from lunar orbiter in order to determine more precise information about elevations on the moon and clues to the composition of its surface.