NASA had high resolution images of the moon in the 1960s before the Apollo mission.

We’ve come a long way since the industrial revolution; as technology grows every day, so is our understanding of our world and our place in it. A couple of centuries ago, whatever we saw in the sky was mystery, but that’s not all the story. Then astronomy was born — having the ability to observe celestial objects as a huge field of science, and has led to so much more than we could have imagined. In the 20th century, photography was a big deal, but it wasn’t that a deal as now. However, getting images was a thing but not high resolution, though the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) had images of the Moon with high resolutions, yet, astronomers weren’t able to resolve them.

Related media: Clair de Lune 4K Version — Moon Images from NASA

 

Lunar Snapshot: Ready, Say ‘Cheese’

The 1960s was a decade that saw a lot of stuff — the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Suffrage, the Apollo mission, … just to name a few. In 1961, then President John F. Kennedy (RIP), proposed a big deal for NASA. The deal was to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade — because the Soviet Union had done that already, and (you guessed it) the Cold War paranoia was a thing. Before NASA could accomplish that, they had to know what’s at stake, that is, you must know where you’re going to.

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Image: NASA | NASA Lunar Orbiter Program

In efforts, NASA started by launching unmanned orbiters to map the moon and find a suitable landing site. Through 1966 and 1967, the Lunar Orbiter Program sent five spacecraft to take photographs of the lunar surface. The orbiters achieved what they were looking for, but unfortunately, had to crash-land on the moon to avoid interfering with future orbiters. Its really mind boggling as to what these orbiters achieved. The orbiters captured almost 99 percent of the lunar surface with a minimum resolution of 60 meters.

Technically, they photographed nearly all 38 million square kilometers in such high quality. Other orbiters captured resolutions of just a meter. Oh!, that’s not even all the good news, since digital photography was not yet invented, each orbiter had to develop the film, scan the photograph like a fax machine, and then beam the analog data back to Earth. Then comes the bad news: NASA couldn’t resolve the images back then.

 

Where’re My Lunar Selfies?

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Image: NASA Lunar Orbiter | Original image of the famous ‘Earthrise’ photo (1968).

The 60s didn’t have sophisticated tech like today; the data sent from the orbiters back to Earth were recorded onto magnetic tapes — yes, those tapes used in VCR players — that were stored inside a refrigerator-sized device that was housed in one of three receiving stations in Australia, Spain, or California. Which were later printed on wide sheets of paper; so wide that NASA had to rent old chapels and hang them there for analysis. The images that were released at the time were all of low-quality — that’s what was available for decades to come. The images were printed, and the tapes were placed in a storage in Maryland and was eventually forgotten about.

In the 1980s, Nancy Evans, co-founder of the NASA Planetary Data System, and Mark Nelson from Caltech embarked on a quest to collect the magnetic analog tapes and transform it into digital data — finally we could get them on our smartphones. After they collected all that analog data, they ran out of funds, so they had no option than to abandon the restoration project they started. Unfortunately, Nancy retired and Mark went back into the private sector. They brought the tapes along with them with the hope of raising more funds and continue with their project further. That didn’t go well as they planned, with lack of funds, the tapes were left sitting in a barn in California.

 

That’s An Amazing Shot

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Image: NASA Lunar Orbiter | ‘Earthrise’ image before and after Lunar Orbiter Recovery Project

At long last, in 2007, Nancy made one last effort to get help with the restoration project. The space entrepreneur Dennis Wingo and NASA engineer Keith Cowing, came to the rescue; who had already began self-funding their own project, the Lunar Orbiter Recovery Project, to restore the images. They’d set up a studio in an abandoned McDonalds, reassembled the tape drives, digitized the analog data, and used that data to manually restructure every image in Photoshop. Surprisingly, they successfully reassembled the famous Earthrise image, they got NASA’s attention and their funding.

After bringing thousands of high-resolution images back from the dead, the Lunar Orbiter Recovery Project completed it’s mission at the end of 2017. Today, the images are freely available to the public on the NASA website and in the U.S National Archives. Check out a few of our favorites below.

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Written by: Nana Kwadwo, Mon, Jan 21, 2019.

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