This Day in History (23-Aug-1966) – Lunar Orbiter 1 takes 1st photograph of Earth from Moon

Pictures of Earth from space had been taken before, by rockets in the 1940s, and satellites in the 1950s and 1960s. However, those pictures captured just parts of Earth, as opposed to a full-on view of the planet. In the summer of 1966, the United States was preparing to send the first humans to the moon. NASA needed high resolution pictures of the surface to make sure this is something they could land on and pick out landing sites. NASA could call upon off-the-shelf technology: Boeing and Eastman Kodak had previously developed a spacecraft with an onboard camera system for the Department of Defense.

The first spacecraft, Lunar Orbiter 1, left Earth on August 10, 1966. It was like a flying photography lab. The camera system itself took up at least a third of the spacecraft. The Lunar Orbiter camera contained dual lenses, taking photos at the same time. One lens took wide-angle images at medium resolution. A second lens took high-resolution images yielding details as small as 5 meters in size.  The camera had big honking reels of 70 mm film. The film would roll through, the camera would take pictures, and then move the exposed film to an automated developer. The automated film developer contained a mix of chemicals that would develop the film using a process similar to the method used by Polaroid cameras. An electron beam would then scan each developed image before transmitting the photos back to Earth using radio signals.

But at some point during the mission, NASA contemplated pointing the spacecraft’s camera at Earth. Repositioning the satellite was a high risk maneuver. But NASA decided to take the risk. So on August 23, the spacecraft successfully took a photo of an earthrise, the blue planet rising above the moon’s horizon. NASA took the image and created a poster of it which was given as gifts to everybody. Senators and congressmen would give it out as presents to constituents and visiting dignitaries.



This Day in History (20-Jul-1969) – Armstrong walks on moon

Since 1966 to March 1969, NASA launched Apollo 7 to Apollo 10 missions to establish possibility of human landing on the moon. On July 16, Apollo 11 took off from Kennedy Space Center with astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin Jr., and Michael Collins aboard. Armstrong, a 38-year-old civilian research pilot, was the commander of the mission. After traveling 240,000 miles in 76 hours, Apollo 11 entered into a lunar orbit on July 19. The next day, the lunar module Eagle, manned by Armstrong and Aldrin, separated from the command module, where Collins remained. Two hours later, the Eagle began its descent to the lunar surface, and at 4:18 p.m. the craft touched down on the southwestern edge of the Sea of Tranquility. Armstrong radioed to Mission Control in Houston, Texas, a message: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” Armstrong later confirmed that landing was his biggest concern, saying “the unknowns were rampant,” and “there were just a thousand things to worry about.”

At 10:39 p.m., five hours ahead of the original schedule, Armstrong opened the hatch of the lunar module. As he made his way down the lunar module’s ladder, a television camera attached to the craft recorded his progress and beamed the signal back to Earth, where hundreds of millions watched in great anticipation. At 10:56 p.m., Armstrong spoke his famous quote, “that’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” He then planted his left foot on the gray, powdery surface, took a cautious step forward, and humanity had walked on the moon. Aldrin joined him shortly, and offered a simple but powerful description of the lunar surface: “magnificent desolation.” They explored the surface for two and a half hours, collecting samples and taking photographs. They left behind an American flag, a patch honoring the fallen Apollo 1 crew, and a plaque on one of Eagle’s legs which reads, “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon. July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.” At 1:11 a.m. on July 21, both astronauts were back in the lunar module and the hatch was closed. The two men slept that night on the surface of the moon, and at 1:54 p.m. the Eagle began its ascent back to the command module on return journey.



This Day in History (11-Jul-1979) – Skylab crashes to Earth

Launched in 1973, Skylab was the world’s first successful space station. The first manned Skylab mission came two years after the Soviet Union launched Salynut 1, the world’s first space station, into orbit around the earth. Unfortunately, NASA spent far less time and energy planning how to gracefully bring the space station back to Earth at the end of its mission. Skylab carried the most varied assortment of experimental equipment ever assembled in a single spacecraft to that date. The crews of Skylab spent more than 700 hours observing the sun and brought home more than 175,000 solar pictures. They also provided important information about the biological effects of living in space for prolonged periods of time. Five years after the last Skylab mission, the space station’s orbit began to deteriorate–earlier than was anticipated–because of unexpectedly high sunspot activity. On July 11, 1979, Skylab made a spectacular return to earth, breaking up in the atmosphere and showering burning debris over the Indian Ocean and Australia. No one was injured.

All week there had been mounting speculation over where the spacecraft would come down. In India, the police in all states were put on full alert and the civil aviation department was planning to ban flights across the sub-continent during the crucial hours of re-entry. Beginning in June of 1979, as Skylab’s re-entry approached, many American newspapers jokingly proposed “Skylab insurance”. The San Francisco Examiner went one step further, offering a $10,000 prize to the first person to deliver a piece of Skylab debris to its office within 72 hours of the crash. Knowing the orbiter wasn’t coming down anywhere near the United States, the newspaper felt it was making a safe bet. In Australia, 17-year-old Stan Thornton of tiny Esperance awoke to the commotion when Skylab broke apart in the atmosphere and pelted his house with space station fragments. Thinking quickly, he grabbed a few charred bits of material from his yard, hopped on a plane without so much as a passport or suitcase and made it to the Examiner’s office before the deadline.



This Day in History (29-Jun-1995) – US shuttle docks with Russian space station

NASA and the Russian space agency kicked off a new era in international space cooperation in June of 1995, when the US Space Shuttle Atlantis docked with the Russian space station Mir for the first time.  Atlantis’ mission, STS-71, was  launched on June 27 from launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and marked the 100th U.S. human space launch. Together, Atlantis and Mir became the largest combined spacecraft ever in orbit, totaling almost a half a million pounds. The US shuttle Atlantis delivered a relief crew of two cosmonauts to the Russian Mir space station, signalling a new era of space co-operation between the two former Cold War rivals.

The operation to link the craft was led by the commander of the Atlantis, Robert Gibson. Flying over the Mediterranean at 17,500mph, he lined up the Mir in his sights and with barely a shudder the two craft touched. After the safety of the spacecraft was confirmed with the pressure between them equalised, Gibson opened the hatch separating them. Propelling himself through to the Russian craft he stretched out his arm to shake hands with his counterpart. The symbolic gesture was watched live from Moscow by US Vice President Al Gore, and by the head of NASA Dan Goldin at the Russian control centre.

The crew of the US shuttle moved into the Mir for group photos, before presenting the cosmonauts with gifts of chocolate, fruit and flowers. The Russians gave the Americans gifts of bread and salt, the traditional symbols of welcome.

Mr Gibson said: “After all the training and the preparation it seems hard to believe we’re actually there but indeed we are.” The two spacecraft remained attached for few days, giving the Mir crew time to stock up on fresh water, oxygen and nitrogen. The crews carried out a range of scientific experiments. The mission saw the first American to be part of a Mir crew, NASA-1 Mir Astronaut Norman Thagard.



This Day in History (24-Jun-1947) – Kenneth Arnold makes the first widely reported UFO sighting near Mount Rainier, Washington

There have been UFO sightings ever since man roamed the Earth. There exist many paintings of centuries past that depict unusual flying objects in the sky. Folklore of many early peoples are filled with stories of strange objects flying through the skies. However, most Ufologists credit pilot Kenneth Arnold’s UFO sighting of 1947 as the beginning of the modern UFO age.

On June 24, 1947, businessman Arnold was using his plane to help search for a missing aircraft. He was flying over the Cascade mountains. As he scanned the landscape below him, he would notice some flashes in his eyes, like reflecting sunlight. Arnold soon found the source of the flashes – a series of fast moving objects. He described them as silvery and shiny. The most startling aspect of the object was a lack of a tail. The objects appeared to be shaped like a pie plate. This description almost certainly meant that the objects had a raised top, or cupola on them. This description very closely fit that of the large UFO photographed during The Battle of Los Angeles

The stunned pilot was seeing something that he had never seen before in his many years of flying. He estimated the objects’ altitude as between 9,500 and 10,000 feet. He began to clock their flight from Mt. Ranier to Mt. Adams. This information would be used to estimate the objects’ speed at 1,200 mph, an unbelievable speed for the era.

Although the term saucer was used in a 1930 UFO report in Texas, it was meant to show the relative size of the object from arm’s length. Arnold told a newspaper reporter that the objects moved “like a saucer would if you skipped it across the water.” Arnold was indicating how the objects bounced across the atmosphere, not the shape of the object, Yet, newspaper reporter Bill Bequette’s report on the AP news wire used the term “flying saucer” to describe the objects’ shape. A phrase was coined.


This Day in History (2-Jun-1858) – Donati Comet 1st seen named after it’s discoverer

Comet Donati, or Donati’s Comet, formally designated C/1858 L1 and 1858 VI, is a long-period comet named after the Italian  astronomer Giovanni Battista Donati who first observed it on June 2, 1858. It was the fifth comet to be discovered in 1858, and the fourth discovered by Donati (he would discover two more in 1864). After the Great Comet of 1811, it was the most brilliant comet that appeared in the 19th century. It became visible to the naked eye in the both hemispheres between September 1858 and March 1859. It was nearest the Earth on October 10, 1858. The comet has an orbital inclination of 116.9°.

Its gracefully curved tail, which extended almost 40 degrees in the southwestern sky, made a great visual impact and inspired several pictorial (paintings, watercolours, sketches) and poetic (lyrical and satirical) representations, especially in Great Britain and France. Donati’s comet, a true media event of its time, was very much in the public news in September-October of 1858. It was also the first comet to be photographed. The comet was photographed on September 28, 1858, at Harvard College Observatory by George P. Bond, son of William C. Bond, director of the observatory. He made several attempts with increasing exposure times, finally achieving a discernible image.

Abraham Lincoln, then a candidate for a seat in the U.S. Senate, sat up on the porch of his hotel in Jonesboro, Illinois to see “Donti’s Comet” on September 14, 1858, the night before the third of his historic debates with Stephen Douglas over the future of slavery in America, in which Lincoln famously declared “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Donati’s Comet appears as a streak and star in the early evening sky of a painting by William Dyce, A Recollection of October 5th, 1858.

Due to its astoundingly long elliptical orbit, it is estimated that Donati’s Comet will not be seen passing by Earth again until the 4th millennium.



This Day in History (28-Apr-2001) – Dennis Tito, becomes the first space tourist by joining the crew of Soyuz TM-32 aboard the International Space Station

After a successful career at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Dennis Tito, engineer byprofession,  lost his job during massive budget cutbacks NASA suffered in the early 1970s. He went on to study finance at the University of California, Los Angeles. Tito then formed the investment firm Wilshire Associates, where he applied the computer modeling and mathematical analysis he learned as a rocket scientists to the stock market. Tito’s investments made him a wealthy man. During this time, MirCorp , the America-based company had signed a lease to commercialize the Russian space station Mir. It was looking for wealthy clients to become the world’s first space tourists. Tito had earned enough money and wanted to visit space since NASA days. He quickly signed for it.

But due to lack of funding Mir space station was discarded. However Russians had other ideas. They agreed to sell Tito the third seat on a replacement Soyuz spacecraft heading for the International Space Station (ISS) for a reported $20 million. Another American company, Space Adventures, took over responsibility for arranging the flight. NASA officials refused to let Tito train with the cosmonauts stating the timing of the flight was premature. The Russians didn’t budge, and five days later NASA relented. Tito agreed to release NASA from any liability in case anything went wrong and to pay for any damages he caused to the station. He also agreed to stay in the Russian part of ISS.

Launch day came on April 28, 2001. The Soyuz rocket was launched from Kazakhstan. Two days later, Tito’s Soyuz TM-32 spacecraft docked safely at the space station. Tito had become the first space tourist. Tito spent most of the eight-day flight taking pictures, enjoying the weightless environment of space, and performing several experiments. At the end of the stay, Tito and his crew mates climbed aboard the Soyuz TM-31 spacecraft and landed safely. “It was paradise,” Tito said, “I just came back from paradise.”