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-Apr-1970) – Apollo 13, the only mission bound for the moon to be launched and not reach its target, takes off from Cape Canaveral

Apollo 13 was to be the third mission to land on the Moon. The Apollo spacecraft was made up of two independent spacecraft joined by a tunnel: orbiter Odyssey, and lander Aquarius. The crew lived in Odyssey on the journey to the moon. The spacecraft was launched at 2:13 p.m. EST, April 11, 1970 from launch complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center. The crew consisted of James A. Lovell, world’s most traveled astronaut, John L. Swigert, the First-time flyer and Fred W. Haise, backup crew member of previous Apollo missions.

On the evening of April 13, when the crew was 200,000 miles from Earth and closing in on the moon, mission controller Sy Liebergot saw a low-pressure warning signal on a hydrogen tank in Odyssey. Swigert flipped the switch for the routine procedure. A moment later, the entire spacecraft shuddered around the startled crew. Alarm lights lit up in Odyssey and in Mission Control as oxygen pressure fell and power disappeared. The crew notified Mission Control, with Swigert famously uttering, “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

A spark from an exposed wire in the oxygen tank caused a fire, ripping apart one oxygen tank and damaging another inside the spacecraft. Luckily for Apollo 13, the damaged Odyssey had a healthy backup: Aquarius. The crew now had to balance the challenge of getting home with the challenge of preserving power on Aquarius. The crew performed a crucial burn to point the spacecraft back towards Earth and powered down every nonessential system in the spacecraft.  Without a source of heat, cabin temperatures quickly dropped down close to freezing. Some food became inedible. The crew also rationed water to make sure Aquarius — operating for longer than it was designed — would have enough liquid to cool its hardware down. It was a long few days back home; the entire crew lost weight and Haise developed a kidney infection. However they returned safely to the Pacific Ocean on April 17 after 4 days of anxious hourney. Although Apollo 13’s design problems left a mark on NASA’s reputation, today it also stands as a shining example of how NASA solved a life-threatening problems in space.