In addition, the first three spacecraft took highly detailed photos of 20 potential landing sites that looked promising. Friedlander said that personnel receiving the images on Earth would make giant prints of these images "and lay them out so they could walk on top of them and look for landing sites."
But at some point during the Lunar Orbiter 1's mission, NASA contemplated pointing the spacecraft's camera at Earth.
"That wasn't planned originally," said Williams. "That 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, the spacecraft successfully took a photo of an earthrise, the blue planet rising above the moon's horizon.
"NASA took the image and they created a poster of it which was given as gifts to everybody," said Friedlander. "Senators and congressmen would give it out as presents to constituents and visiting dignitaries."
More pictures followed, including the famous Blue Marble photo of the Earth taken from the window of the Apollo spacecraft, but this elaborate and complex camera system was never really used after the Lunar Orbiter missions.
"At the end of each mission, they did purposely crash the lunar orbiter," said Williams. "Ostensibly, [NASA] didn't want the radio signals from one lunar orbiter to interfere with the next lunar orbiter they put up."
But with presence of the Soviet Union, which was deploying lunar orbiters of its own, Williams speculates that national security precautions may have been a factor. Since the spacecraft and camera were originally based on defense technology, they may have been smashed to bits "so that no one could ever get to them," said Williams.
Some of the extra cameras and Lunar Orbiter spacecraft that were built but never used still exist today, stored at places such as the Smithsonian Institution and at the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y.
The Lunar Orbiter's mission may have been accomplished long ago, but its first image of the Earth continues to inspire.
"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.
Follow U.S. News Science on Twitter.