Now You Know

First image of Earth from the Moon

Image Credit: NASA / LOIRP
Earthrise. Image credit: Apollo 8, NASA

Earthrise. Image credit: Apollo 8, NASA

Most people are familiar with the famous color photo on the right of the Earth appearing to rise above the surface of the Moon, taken by the crew of Apollo 8 in December of 1968–the first crew to photograph the Earth from deep space.

However, the very first image of Earth from the Moon was not taken by a human wielding a camera. It was actually the B&W photo you see above that was taken two years earlier on August 23, 1966 by the unmanned Lunar Orbiter 1 while on its 16th lunar orbit on a mission to photograph the Moon’s surface to aid in the selection of safe landing sites.

Lunar Orbiter 1 and four subsequent Lunar Orbiters photographed 99% of the Moon with a resolution of 60 m or better.

The Lunar Orbiters had an ingenious imaging system, which consisted of a dual-lens camera, a film processing unit, a readout scanner, and a film handling apparatus. Both lenses, a 610-mm narrow angle high-resolution (HR) lens and an 80-mm wide-angle medium resolution (MR) lens, placed their frame exposures on a single roll of 70 mm film. The axes of the two cameras were coincident so the area imaged in the HR frames were centered within the MR frame areas. The film was moved during exposure to compensate for the spacecraft velocity, which was estimated by an electric-optical sensor. The film was then processed, scanned, and the images transmitted back to Earth. NASA

The photographs transmitted back from the Lunar Orbiters were saved onto analog tapes and eventually placed in storage in Maryland. They stayed there until they were transferred to JPL in the 1980’s and Nancy Evans and Mark Nelson from Caltech began a project to obtain surplus FR-900 tape drives. They refurbished them and used them to digitize the lunar images from the analog data on the tapes. Unfortunately, due to lack of funding, they were unable to complete the project. Attempts to raise private funds also failed, and so the drives sat in a barn in Sun Valley, CA for the next several decades. In 2007, Nancy Evans tried to find someone to take the drives. Dennis Wingo of SkyCorp, Inc. heard about this and contacted Keith Cowing from SpaceRef Interactive, Inc., and they brought the drives and tapes up to the NASA Ames Research Center.

Using refurbished machinery and modern digital technology, NASA engineers were able to digitize the images at a much higher resolution than they were originally taken. These images may one day help the next generation of explorers if NASA were to once again return to the moon.

To view the image and for more information about the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project, visit:



Where are your precious pictures stored and will you be able to access them in the future as storage technology changes? Many of us have precious old photos and videos saved onto floppy drives, diskettes, VHS tapes, DVD ROMs, hard drives, USB keys, flash drives, etc.–and some of them are (or will be) irretrievable unless we still have a working device to read and display them. Even storing them “in the cloud” is no guarantee since the cloud is simply rows and stacks of hard drives in someone’s else facility. As storage technology changes, there is a real danger that it may simply to be too costly to move all that data onto the new storage devices–as the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project so amply testifies to.