In the summer of 1966, the Beatles were performing their last string of public concerts, China’s Cultural Revolution had begun, miniskirts were in fashion, the US had nearly 500,000 troops in Vietnam, the National Organization for Women was founded, and both the US and USSR continued in their space race to see who would be the first to land a man on the moon.
But before NASA could send astronauts to our lunar neighbour, they needed to find a safe place to land. So, from 1966-67, the Lunar Orbiter program dispatched unmanned reconnaissance spacecraft to orbit the moon. They were preparing to go to the moon for the Apollo Missions. They needed high-resolution pictures of the surface to make sure they could land on it and also pick out landing sites.
In their endeavour to map the moon quickly, they were fortunate enough to have off-the-shelf technology already in place. Boeing and Eastman Kodak had previously developed a spacecraft with an onboard camera system for the Department of Defense. The first spacecraft, Lunar Orbiter 1, left Earth on August 10, 1966, and 92 hours later it was orbiting the moon.
The camera system itself took up at least a third of the spacecraft,” said Lee Friedlander, the eminent American photographer, and artist. Just about everything else was power and propulsion. It was like a flying photography lab.
The Lunar Orbiter’s onboard camera contained dual lenses that took photos simultaneously. One lens took wide-angle images of the moon at medium resolution. A second telephoto lens took high-resolution images in greater detail.
This is a monumental feat, since exposing, developing, and processing photographic film onboard a moving spacecraft, that traveled around the moon constantly between hot and cold temperature extremes ranging anywhere from approximately 27 to 3,700 miles above the lunar surface is insanely difficult to achieve. It was practically moving around the moon in zero gravity and developing film!
NASA then contemplated whether pointing the spacecraft’s camera at Earth would be viable. “That wasn’t planned originally,” said Dave Williams, a planetary curation scientist at Goddard. “It only came up after the mission was already in operation.”
Williams said that repositioning the satellite was a high-risk maneuver. “If you turned the spacecraft, maybe it wouldn’t turn back again. You don’t want to mess with a working spacecraft if you don’t have to.”
But there was a debate about whether they should even attempt this at all. In the end, Williams said that NASA decided it wanted the picture, and would not blame anyone if something went wrong during the repositioning maneuver.
So on August 23, 1966, the world received its first view of Earth when it captured the first-ever photograph from the surface of the Moon. It showed the blue planet rising above the moon’s horizon. The image was taken during its 16th orbit. The photo was transmitted to Earth by the Lunar Orbiter I and was received at the NASA tracking station at Robledo De Chavela near Madrid, Spain.
NASA took the image and they created a poster of it which was given as gifts to everybody. Senators and congressmen would give it out as presents to constituents and visiting dignitaries.
It was the first irrefutable proof of Earth being a singular, puny oasis.
“We’re on this little Earth. We’re only part of some grand solar system in some big galaxy and universe. That’s why this picture is important because this was the first time that anyone on Earth got this sense,” said Friedlander.
The Lunar Orbiter’s mission may have been accomplished long ago, but its first image of the Earth continues to inspire.,
Written by Shuba Murthy
Featured image by Ashirwad Ray