For thousands of years, humans gazed longingly up at the Moon from Earth, marveling at its otherworldly beauty. Then, on August 23, 1966—50 years ago on Tuesday—this perspective was turned on its head when NASA's Lunar Orbiter 1 probe took the first two images of the Earth from the Moon.
Though grainy in quality, the significance of what these pictures captured was crystal clear. Rising up from behind the lunar horizon, our entire planet fit neatly within the orbiter's viewfinder, unveiled as a whole entity for the first time.
The Moon's desolate foreground, cratered and sterile, offsets the Earth's rippling oceans, marbled cloud systems, and expansive continents. One half of the planet lies in shadow, illustrating that the Earth cycles through phases from the Moon's perspective, just as the Moon does from our vantage point on the ground.
"Lunar Orbiter's two pictures of the Earth taken from near the Moon, 240,000 miles away, showed photographically for the first time the Earth in one of its Moon-like phases at present a crescent-shaped 'last quarter' Earth," the New York Times pointed out in an article published a few days after the photographs were taken.
Up until this point, the only pictures of our home world taken from space were snapped in Earth orbit. While these photo sessions certainly did justice to the planet's mesmerizing features, they were close-ups, rather than wide shots. Lunar Orbiter 1's imagery, in contrast, boldly exposed a larger cosmic picture, in which Earth is simply another lonely and finite world, floating through a sprawling expanse.
But despite how revelatory these pictures were—and how quickly NASA grasped their value—they were an impulsive afterthought. The Lunar Orbiter program was designed to scout out potential sites for the Apollo Moon landings, so the remainder of Lunar Orbiter 1's images were focused on the lunar surface. These photos were captured, developed, scanned, and transmitted entirely on board the spacecraft's intricate photography suite, which was stuffed with huge reels of 70 millimeter film.
The whole platform was delicate and untested, and it even suffered some early malfunctions after its launch on August 10, 1966, that had to be corrected literally on the fly. Still, NASA team leads began to wonder about shifting its orientation so it could capture the Moon and Earth as one happy planetary family. This was not part of the original plan, and it was seen as a risky maneuver.
"If you turned the spacecraft maybe it wouldn't turn back again," Dave Williams, a planetary curation scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, told Space.com. "You don't want to mess with a working spacecraft if you don't have to."
That said, NASA did mess with its working spacecraft, and fortunately, it paid off. The captivating scene was widely disseminated at NASA centers, while American politicians gave out posters of the shots as diplomatic gifts. It marked a crucial turning point for both our conception of our planet's cosmic place, and also for its evident value as a PR tool. Both NASA and the Soviet space program bragged about the interplanetary vistas they visited, but it hadn't yet occurred to either agency that the most marketable space images might be the ones that looked back at home. Lunar Orbiter 1 changed that attitude forever.
Two and a half years later, astronaut William Anders took the iconic "Earthrise" photograph, pictured above, from Apollo 8. That was followed by the equally influential "Blue Marble," shot, pictured below, taken by the Apollo 17 crew in 1972.
These later images eclipsed Lunar Orbiter 1's shots in both fame and sophistication, but they were no doubt beneficiaries of NASA's impulsive decision to take a break from exploring untouched worlds in favor of beholding our own home from a breathtaking new perch. Humans have always known that Earth is obscenely gorgeous from a surface perspective, but 50 years ago, we learned that it is every bit as photogenic from afar.