Like No Other View On Earth

NASA's photo providing the first glimpse of Earth from deep space occurred 45 years ago today.
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By Ben P. Stein, Inside Science News Service

(ISNS)—You think your vacation pictures are impressive? Try to imagine what it was like 45 years ago as scientists and engineers produced the very first images of our planet from deep space.

On August 23, 1966, NASA's Lunar Orbiter 1 took the first photo of Earth from the moon's orbit, and it forever changed how we see our home planet.

"You're looking at your home from this really foreign kind of desolate landscape," said Jay Friedlander, who started his NASA career 20 years ago as a photographic technician working on images including those from the Lunar Orbiter at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. "It's the first time you're actually looking at Earth as a different kind of place," said Friedlander, currently a multimedia specialist at Goddard. 

Pictures of Earth from space had been taken before, by rockets in the 1940s, and satellites in the 1950s and 1960s. However, those pictures captured just parts of Earth, as opposed to a full-on view of the planet. But that was about to change.

In the summer of 1966, the Beatles were performing their last string of public concerts, the Baltimore Orioles were on the way to their first World Series championship, the National Organization for Women was founded, and the United States was preparing to send the first humans to the moon. But before NASA could send astronauts to our lunar neighbor, 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.

"The basic idea was preparing to go to the moon for the Apollo missions," said Dave Williams, a planetary curation scientist at Goddard. According to Williams, NASA "needed high resolution pictures of the surface to make sure this is something they could land on and pick out landing sites."

NASA needed to map the moon quickly. As it turned out, they could call upon off-the-shelf technology: 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—92 hours later it was orbiting the moon.

It was like a flying photography lab, according to Friedlander.

"The camera system itself took up at least a third of the spacecraft," said Friedlander. Just about everything else, he said, "was power and propulsion."

The Lunar Orbiter camera contained dual lenses, taking photos at the same time. One lens took wide-angle images of the moon at medium resolution. A second telephoto lens took high-resolution images yielding details as small as 5 meters in size. For every swath of real estate on the moon that the medium resolution lens imaged, the high resolution lens would take three snapshots of smaller areas within that swath.

The entire camera contraption would have made Rube Goldberg proud, exposing, developing, and processing photographic film onboard a moving spacecraft, traveling around the moon constantly between hot and cold temperature extremes anywhere from approximately 27 to 3,700 miles above the lunar surface.

"This thing is going around the moon in zero gravity and developing film," said Williams. "It was an amazing achievement that they could do this."

Williams said that the camera had "these big honking reels" of 70 mm film. The film would roll through, the camera would take pictures, and then move the exposed film to an automated developer. The automated film developer contained a mix of chemicals that would develop the film using a process similar to the method used by Polaroid cameras. An electron beam would then scan each developed image before transmitting the photos back to Earth using radio signals—the same way television satellites would analog signals to TV stations.

Deployed one after the other, five Lunar Orbiter spacecraft produced a medium-detail map of 99 percent of the moon. Only in the last two years has NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter—still actively circling the moon—generated higher-resolution maps of the entire lunar surface.