The Moon Images Nasa Captured in the Late '60s Were Better Than We Thought

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(Dark side of the Moon captured from Lunar Orbiter 3 in 1967, Credit: NASA/LOIRP)

From 1966 to 1967 NASA sent five unmanned lunar orbiters into space dubbed unimaginatively Lunar Orbiter I-V, which was the only unimaginative thing about them. You see NASA was in the middle of the space race with Russia and they needed to get a man on the moon as fast as possible. 

But where do you land on a moon that you've never seen up close? That's where the satellites came into play. They were highly inventive pieces of technology designed to map the landscape of the moon by creating photos that had so much detail they could be blown up to a giant 40 x 54 inches and be laid out on the floor of a warehouse to actually walk across the surface of the moon on earth to find that elusive landing spot. 

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(NASA scientists mapping out the surface of the moon on earth with images from the Lunar orbiters Credit: NASA)

Digital images didn't exist back then and the satellites were taking pictures of the moon with 70mm film with no way to physically bring the satellites back to earth to retrieve the data, so, how do you do it? The lunar orbiters did something truly innovative, they were a one-stop photoshop, developing the film on board and then raster scanning all the negatives with a 5-micron spot (equivalent to 200 lines/mm resolution) before beaming the images to Earth using lossless analog compression. 

They had live video technology, but it wouldn've looked terrible, so to actually create a machine that could do all of that back in 1966 is mind blowing. 

Because of the distance to the earth the satellites beamed the data back to three ground stations on earth, one in California, one in Madrid and one in Australia. The transmissions were recorded onto magnetic tape. But the tapes needed special Ampex FR-900 drives to actually read them and each one was about the size of phone booth and cost around $300,000 in 1960s money which is about 2.3 million dollars in today's money. 

Because of security and fear the world would know just how good the U.S.'s satellite camera technology was the first image wasn't released to the public until 1971 and they were cool, but they weren't anywhere new what they really looked like. 

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(unrestored Lunar Orbiter photo as the world saw them from 1971 - 2008 Credit: NASA)


Enter scientists in 2008 who, after making a request from NASA, were given an abandoned McDonalds to set up shop and custom built hybrid gear using the old tape machines to transfer the images from analog to digital. And holy cow are they incredible. These images were taken over 50 years ago from space. 

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(same photo but after it had been restored by the Mcmoon team. Credit: NASA)

I urge you to check out the full story by Ryan Smith at World of Indie as it's truly worth a deep dive to find out how this all happened and who was responsible. You can even go to NASA'S file vault and download the massive 600MB images to see for yourself how cool they are.