While racing to get to the Moon, NASA took into consideration the probability that the Apollo 11 Lunar Module could crash on the lunar surface leaving behind no telemetry about the reason for the crash.
In such a situation, NASA might have to deport a high-powered camera, coming from a top-secret reconnaissance satellite, to capture the accident site in a secret crash scene investigation. That never happened, but NASA was close to finishing the hardware to complete the mission when they canceled the program, back in 1967.
Declassified data suggest that NASA and a secretive organization going by the name of National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) partnered on the classified UPWARD project. UPWARD aimed to image the Moon in very high-resolution photographs in training for lunar landings. However, the program made some of the US intelligence agencies anxious, and as soon as the urgent requirement for it vanished, the two organizations quarreled about its extension.
First ever expeditions to the Moon
While preparing the first stages of the Apollo lunar landing project, NASA engineers were worried as they knew quite little about the Moon’s surface. Even though the majority of scientists ignored suggestions that the Moon might be covered in a fine dust that could absorb a Lunar Module, they were initially guessing about the features of the surface. Because they were planning to send astronauts in an untested vehicle, they needed as much data on the Moon’s surface as they could get.
Therefore, NASA conducted a series of prototype robotic expeditions that would collect data on the lunar surface, such as the size of surface characteristics, the smoothness of terrain, and the slope of the surface.
Lunar Orbiter takes flight
As the production of top-secret spacecraft required for Apollo mission was designed, NASA began launching the Lunar Orbiter missions. The Lunar Orbiter program started in 1962 and benefited from access to classified spy satellite technology resulting in a contract between NASA and NRO. Lunar Orbiter I launched in August 1966, then the Lunar Orbiter II followed in November 1966. Both expeditions were successful, and NASA determined that these missions had confirmed numerous Apollo landing sites.
In January 1967, the Apollo 1 fire produced a significant setback to the program. As NASA examined the fire, this offered a pause that allowed those who were supervising the backup project of Apollo, dubbed Lunar Mapping and Survey System, or LM&SS, to consider its use. It also caused a rift between those who saw LMSS a tool the agency could use and those who wanted to conceal their activities from the public.
By April 1967, NASA Associate Administrator Robert Seamans talked about the future of the LMSS program with the DoD (Department of Defense) and NRO officials. Seamans has also commanded a complete review of basing the landing decision on the data collected by Lunar Orbiter. They discussed three variants: cancellation, continuation without testing in Earth orbit, and continuation with testing in Earth orbit. The latter option would have been an issue because it would have resulted in the creation of unclassified images and would have drawn attention to the concealed program they were rolling.
Finally, besides the LMSS hardware, NRO and NASA had elaborated a cover story and measures for unveiling the existence of the camera system.
What happened to UPWARD and LMSS?
After a period of indecision concerning the disposal of the LMSS hardware, Seamans commanded that the concealed hardware be sent to the storage until a decision would be taken. The hardware consisted of four units in different stages of development, including two that were almost completed.
What happened to the stored hardware is still unknown. The hardware was classified, and placed somewhere at NASA, most probably, before being transferred to the NRO, or ordered its destruction.
The code name UPWARD was classified, together with some technical details of the gear, but the existence of the LMSS program was not made secret anymore. However, NASA did nothing to make the existence of the project known during Apollo. It is also not mentioned in official reports of hundreds of popular books about the Apollo program.
What the UPWARD and LMSS story shows is that after 50 years after the alleged Moon landing, the report of Apollo is far from integral. There may still be numerous secrets of the Apollo program kept secret by NASA.