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Moon With a View

How 1960s scientists risked everything to take an unprecedented portrait of our planet.

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Original Lunar Orbiter 1 Earthrise photo. Credit: NASA

I t wasn’t Apollo 17’s famous “Blue Marble” photo, nor the awe-inspiring “Earthrise” shot taken by the Apollo 8 crew. No, our first glimpse of Earth from lunar orbit came on August 23rd, 1966, when NASA decided to risk its moon-mapping mission to have Lunar Orbiter 1 crane its camera lens away from the lunar surface and take a few photos of us instead.

The spacecraft’s sole mission (which it had no choice but to accept as it was an uncrewed robotic spacecraft and not a sentient being) was to survey the surface of the moon. NASA, the federal government, and the American public were all eager to see the promise of slain President John F. Kennedy fulfilled: By the end of the decade, the United States would put a man on the moon.

The space race was about much more than an eternal boot print left in moon dust: It was about showcasing scientific and technological prowess and a commitment to its advancement. It was also about proving that we were willing (even if not totally unafraid) to push beyond the realm of what was known. We would stalk the unknown in conquest, just as our nation’s forefathers had. After all, America was built on that particular brand of “just try and stop me!” entitlement.

Sending someone 238,900 miles from home without a map seemed ill-advised — not to mention rude as hell.

By this point, we had a considerably better handle on ocean-based excursions and even a respectable framework for confronting the treachery of vertical mountainous adventures. We could predict, and to some extent even plan for, how we might endure Earth’s more extreme environments — so long as they didn’t entirely break through the atmospheric ceiling.

We were steadily acquiring more knowledge of that outer realm, though. We had a decent approximation of how to get to the moon from Earth via spacecraft. We knew that a living thing — even a human being — could survive in a capsule that had been thrust into the moon’s orbit. As the century wore on, the variables of interest became more concerned with what we’d find once we got there. The work of any space agency, then, was to get as good and as close of a look at the moon as possible before plunking anyone down there. Sending someone 238,900 miles from home without a map seemed ill-advised — not to mention rude as hell.

One of the most pressing pieces of information for whichever nation was destined to be the first to plop a human down on the moon’s surface was where, exactly, that could feasibly be done. This necessitated the pursuit of some kind of topography of a lunar landing. By the 1950s, the Soviet Union had already started scouting out the moon with its own spacecraft. Never one to be outdone, so began NASA’s Lunar Orbiter program in the mid-1960s.

Lunar Orbiter 1 was never meant to give a single damn about Earth; by design, it only had eyes for the moon. As it locked into a loving lunar orbit, it took over 200 photos of the moon’s surface, which were then developed aboard the craft and beamed back to Earth via satellite. Lunar Orbiter 1 was something akin to a space-bound photography lab, though not quite of the 1-hour-photo variety. More like the “several weeks to months and no doubt some intergalactic radio interference,” variety.

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Lunar Orbiter 1 (Source: NASA Space Science Data Coordinated Archive)

Although the camera was equipped to shoot high-resolution photos, many of the higher-res images were smeared. The medium-res ones, however, assisted NASA scientists in mapping some 5 million square kilometers of the moon’s surface — including the first-ever clear view of the moon’s far side.

As more of the moon came into view, so too did visions of a crewed moon mission. Between 1966 and 1967, five Lunar Orbiter spacecraft would survey the moon thoroughly enough that several viable patches upon which to land a crewed spacecraft were identified. And, of course, you know how that story ends: 1969’s Apollo 11 moon landing.

But in 1966, as Lunar Orbiter 1 was circling the moon, snapping pictures as it did, several of the scientists eagerly awaiting its transmissions began to feel enticed by the possibilities of the craft’s peculiar new vantage point. The photos it was sending back gave them an impressive view of the moon just as they’d hoped. But what else might the lens capture if it were to, say… turn itself around? What would Lunar Orbiter 1 see if it were to spin away from the moon’s surface to look back at… us?

Lunar Orbiter 1 was never meant to give a single damn about Earth; by design, it only had eyes for the moon.

It wasn’t as though we’d never seen Earth from space before: Humanity’s first-ever look at our home planet from above came in 1946. A captured Nazi rocket cruising 105 kilometers above the ground took a grainy photo from the edges of Earth’s atmosphere. The robust canister containing the film — which had been designed to withstand the hot, hot, hot descent — was then unceremoniously dropped back to Earth and developed.

Technically, this is the first photo of Earth taken from space:

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Credit: White Sands Missile Range/Applied Physics Laboratory (Public Domain)

Though the Nazi rocket photo made it seem like Earth wasn’t all that much to look at, the novelty of having done it successfully was inspiring. It whet our collective aesthetic appetite and inspired within us dreams of a moon with a view.

Around the time Lunar Orbiter 1 was launched, our desire to put ourselves into some greater cosmic context had only intensified. The 1960s was a rather tumultuous era, and it may have been that there was something paradoxically grounding about the thought of seeing Earth from a far-off, far-flung vantage point. A place of greater safety, perhaps.

As it so happened, by August 1966 NASA’s lil’ Lunar Orbiter 1 was perfectly positioned to provide us with that perspective. The problem was, its all-seeing eye was locked in orbit with the moon and facing away from us. It was doing precisely what we’d intended it to do: staring at the moon unselfconsciously with the intent of capturing its fine details.

The temptation to turn its omnipresent yet unconcerned eye back to Earth became too great. NASA’s scientists began to chatter. Philosophical murmurs aside, turning the spacecraft around would not be easy from a practical standpoint. Literal rocket science was involved. To even attempt such a maneuver wouldn’t just be challenging, it would risk Lunar Orbiter 1’s entire mission. Which was not only an important data-gathering expedition, but a fairly expensive one.

The 1960s was a rather tumultuous era, and it may have been that there was something paradoxically grounding about the thought of seeing Earth from a far-off, far-flung vantage point.

After much discussion, even the higher-ups at NASA gave in to the temptation. In fact, they went so far as to reassure the scientists and engineers tasked with the risky move that should anything go wrong with the mission, they would not be held individually accountable. If Lunar Orbiter 1 failed in its moon-mapping mission because they had deviated from the plan so that they might take a sexy Earth portrait, NASA would go on record as saying it had been a collective and well-intentioned fuck-up.

With this blessing — and the knowledge that it may never be able to be turned back to its intended orientation to the moon — the satellite was repositioned.

Lunar Orbiter 1 was programmed only to take photos of whatever was in front its camera lens. Thus, it made no protest as it was turned away from the moon toward the planet we call home, indifferent to the unprecedented view it had been given.

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Lunar Orbiter 1’s “Earthrise” photo, taken August 23, 1966. Credit: NASA

Our first view of Earth from the moon came shortly after, though it wouldn’t come into full, high-res view until many decades later. In 2008, the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project restored the pair of images Lunar Orbiter 1 captured of Earth from the last surviving original films. The resulting 1.2 GB full-resolution image required both ’60s-era technology and more modern means to restore, but it was a worthy labor of love. (It’s also a bit of a labor to download. Those looking for a quicker option can get a sense of the restored image here.)

Today we have an abundance of high-def, in-living-color views of our planet from above and beyond. At first glance, it seems there’s no comparison to be made with even the restored images from Lunar Orbiter 1.

They are not sharp, they are not colorful. Still, we marvel at them. Perhaps we were never hoping these images would reveal any unseen detail of our planet. We live and often loathe the finer points of life on Earth every day.

Perhaps what we hope to see in such photos is the greater sum of our parts. Evidence or proof that even as we become lost to our inner lives, the world itself spins madly on. Even if no one is watching.

Or, even if someone — or something — is.

𝑎 𝑐𝑙𝑒𝑣𝑒𝑟 ℎ𝑎𝑔 ം

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