Historic Photo of Earth and Moon Turns 47Sure, it's a tad grainy, but this image of the Earth and moon rocked the world
The first photo of Earth from the moon's orbit, taken Aug. 23, 1966. (NASA)
Photos of Earth from space had been captured before -- the very first was taken in 1947 from a rocket more than 100 miles above the planet, and in 1960, the first weather satellites beamed pictures back home -- but this photograph was different. Captured 47 years ago this week, the view -- with the moon in the foreground and the Earth rising behind it -- was the first taken of Earth from the moon's orbit. As no image had done before, it revealed our planet as one of many in the universe.
The image was captured Aug. 23, 1966, by Lunar Orbiter I, which NASA launched to map the moon's surface in preparation for future landings. When the image was taken, the spacecraft was on its 16th orbit and about to move behind the moon. Its stippled look comes from the 60 strips of low-speed 70mm film. It was processed onboard the orbiter, digitized and transmitted back to Earth; a NASA tracking station close to Madrid received the data.
And amazingly, the image was never meant to be.
The Lunar Orbiter Flight Path Analysis and Control team captured the photo on a whim -- it wasn't in the mission playbook. To do so, they had to turn the craft -- more than 230,000 miles away from home -- toward Earth. If anything had gone awry, it could have undermined the entire mission. Lunar Orbiter I was a very low-tech craft, and if had become stuck in the wrong position, or if it had used up too much film on the unplanned endeavor, it could have set back the start of the Apollo missions.
But a rogue Boeing engineer, Dale Shellhorn, saw that the shot was unmissable. He suggested a way to capture the image and his team agreed. They moved ahead without the approval of higher-ups. The photo soon became iconic worldwide, and though the head of the Boeing Orbiter team was initially angry, Shellhorn kept his job. "He did get his revenge on me," Shellhorn joked about his boss to The Seattle Times in 2006. "He made me a supervisor. Supervisors never get overtime."
Today, the image looks impossibly dated. Yet its stark rendering of the cold, dark vastness of space makes our relatively warm, lush planet appear all the more extraordinary -- just as it did nearly half a century ago this week.
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