It was originally designed to photograph the smooth lunar landscape. The images it took would then be parsed for ideal landing locations for the Surveyor and Apollo missions. The Lunar Orbiter 1 was the first American spacecraft to orbit the moon, and it was the first of five spacecraft in the Lunar Orbiter program that was operated between 1966 and 1967. The Surveyor program followed between 1966 and 1968, and the manned Apollo flights followed later from 1968 to 1972.
On August 23, 1966, the Lunar Orbiter 1 took a photo that changed our perspective entirely.
It wasn’t the first photograph taken of Earth. That honor goes to a V-2 missile launched in 1946 from the White Sands Missile Range. A 35mm motion picture was affixed to the missile, and it took a photo every second and a half. The photo below was taken from a height of 65 miles. The missile ultimately fell back to earth, crashed, and destroyed the camera. Fortunately, the film was encased in steel.
The photograph from the Lunar Orbiter 1 gave all of us back home a brand new perspective. It was the first image of our planet from another place. The photo from the V-2 missile and other photographs from later rockets and satellites only gave us what amounted to puzzle pieces, fragmentary views of the larger picture. With half of Earth obscured by darkness, Lunar 1′s photo made us realize how small we really are. Earth isn’t the only rock in space, and with the broad lunar landscape at the foreground, the Earth looks like a misplaced billiards ball.
While it was and still is a groundbreaking image, it isn’t the most beautiful one we have of our planet. The famous Blue Marble was taken December 7, 1972 during the Apollo 17 mission from a distance of 28,000 miles. With the sun behind them, the astronauts had the best possible lighting, and the photograph they took received nearly instant popularity. Even today, it is one of the most recognizable photographs.
Granted, the Blue Marble doesn’t have the perspective that Lunar 1′s image has, and that’s what sets it apart. We look infinitesimal from the Moon, and your house definitely is not visible. Rough day at work? Look at that photo and consider your place in the universe. There’s a monk-like peacefulness that comes with space photography, and the Lunar Orbiter 1 made one of the most important contributions.
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