Fifty years ago, on August 23, 1966, the NASA satellite called Lunar Orbiter (LO) 1 took the first pictures of Earth from the distance of the moon. The LO1 mission had been launched by the Americans on August 10 the same year to take pictures of the moon’s smooth areas – information that would soon be used to figure a suitable landing spot for the first Apollo moon-landing mission in 1969.
The LO1 mission had its share of glitches, including an overheating problem and its star-tracker conking off, although both issues were quickly resolved. The bigger issue came later: many of the images taken by the probe from its orbit around the moon were significantly smeared. To retrieve this data, NASA kicked off the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project (LOIRP) in 2007, wherein scientists recovered the last surviving tapes of the LO1, fixed it using the same parts used in the 1960s as well as modern electronic techniques and were able to extract the images.
One of the most iconic shots from the LO1 mission is the one depicting an ‘Earthrise’: it shows Planet Earth seemingly rising in the moon’s sky, just like the moon does on Earth’s sky at night. However, the designation of a ‘rising Earth’ is technically incorrect. In the image, Earth is actually setting behind the moon. This photograph’s significance was superseded by another similar shot taken in 1968, by astronaut William Anders on the Apollo 8 mission.
These prized pictures of Earth were taken with some risk, however. It was after all the 1960s and the Space Race had only just begun, poised to become yet another front of the Cold War between the US and the USSR. And if NASA scientists wanted to point a camera in space toward Earth, the USSR had every reason to believe it might be spying. Nonetheless, NASA went ahead with its plan, and the rest is… you know. In fact, the LO1 ‘Earthrise’ shot set the tone for the LO5 mission’s full-Earth capture in 1967.
The LO1 camera was built by Boeing and Eastman Kodak, and occupied a third of the probe’s payload. All five of the LO missions were able to capture 99% of the moon’s surface in 1,654 high-resolution images in 1966-1967. However, since the entire project was conducted under the purview of the US Department of Defence, the LOs all had to be destroyed after their missions concluded. This was because the US government didn’t want their underpinning tech to wind its way into Soviet hands.
Access the full gallery of LO1 images here.