Since we were hairy hunter-gatherers sitting around a campfire, humans have no doubt stared up at the Moon in awe and curiosity. But on August 23, 1966, we looked back down for the first time.
That date marks the first photograph taken from the Moon’s orbit. Its photographer was the Lunar Orbiter 1, which recorded photographic data between August 18 and August 29, 1966, eventually amounting to 42 high resolution and 187 medium resolution frames taken from the lunar orbit. This NASA spacecraft, launched on August 10, 1966, was also the first American spacecraft to orbit the Moon.
Of course, this was in the days before digital photography. Inside Science News Service reports the images were taken by a 70-millimeter film camera. The images were then chemically developed on the film, a bit like a Polaroid camera. It was then scanned and transmitted back to Earth using radio signals.
A collection of images of the Moon's surface taken between August 18 and August 29, 1966. NASA
“The basic idea was preparing to go to the moon for the Apollo missions," Dave Williams, a planetary curation scientist at Goddard Space Flight Center, told Inside Science News Service. He explained that NASA "needed high-resolution pictures of the surface to make sure this is something they could land on and pick out landing sites."
But the mission was much more than a logistical milestone in the space race. Although the photographs pale in comparison compared to iconic “Earthrise” color photographs taken just two years later, or the “Blue Marble” taken on the Apollo missions in 1972, they mark a poignant moment when humanity stopped simply staring at the sky above and began its biggest exploration ever.
You can see the full collection from Lunar Orbiter 1’s photo shoot right here.
If you want to see more incredible photography from the Moon, taken in the years after the Lunar Orbiter 1 missions, head over to the Project Apollo Archive, which features a bank of images from the manned lunar landing program.
The Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project restored the original photograph in 2008. NASA/Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project