The Most Evocative Pictures From the Early History of Space Exploration

The Hubble Space Telescope and other modern great observatories have treated us to scrapbooks full of mind-blowing, dazzling views of the universe. The mesmerized public never takes them for granted.

Emotionally compelling pictures of our place in space really didn’t emerge until the birth of the space program in the late 1950s. Though the early snapshots are mostly black and white images, they are nevertheless legendary because they are the first look that helped us not only scientifically, but intellectually and philosophically to stake out humanity’s relationship with an unimaginably vast cosmos.

At the birth of the Space Race with the Soviet Union, right after the 1957 launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, humanity was just beginning to open a wide new eye onto the universe. This became an overpowering, humbling perspective, leapfrogging across anything that human minds alone could have imagined in thousands of years of creation mythology.


The Moon keeps one hemisphere facing Earth because, like nearly all other satellites in the solar system, it is tidally-locked to its parent planet. This means that the gravitational tug between Earth and the Moon causes its orbital period to synchronize with its rotation period. So, the moon is in lockstep, always keeping one face toward Earth.

On October 7, 1959, the Soviet Union, empowered by the breathtaking success of Sputnik two years earlier, had the audacity to send a probe called Luna 3 to the far side of the moon and photograph its so-called “dark side,” which is a misnomer. The only “dark side of the moon” is a Pink Floyd album. What had been hidden from human consciousness since the dawn of time was now unveiled.

However crude, the pictures from Luna 3 were still eerie. It was immediately clear to astronomers that the lunar far side was markedly different from the Earth-facing side. There were much fewer dark mare (ancient flooded lava basins). To add insult to injury, because the Soviets were there first, they got to name key lunar surface features, such as the Sea of Moscow, and Tsiolkovsky crater (the Russian space pioneer). Luna 3 carried 200 mm and 500 mm lenses, processed film onboard, and then scanned it for radio transmission to Earth. 


In preparation for the Apollo manned expeditions to the moon, in the mid-1960s NASA sequentially dispatched five robotic Lunar Orbiter spacecraft to do photo-reconnaissance of the moon. Most of the shots were looking face down on potential astronaut landing sites. But the first orbiter captured an oblique shot of the comparatively young, 800-million-year-old crater Copernicus – which is so big it is visible to the unaided eye. The view is strikingly three-dimensional, showing the terraced walls of the crater and surrounding mountains, which are so worn down by micrometeorite erosion they look like piles of beach sand. The photo was hailed in newspapers around the world as the “Picture of the Century.” Ironically, the legendary science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey was produced at about the same time. Director Stanley Kubrick – a stickler for realism – apparently never compared the actual moon shots to the unreal craggy, 1950s moonscape artwork that his special effects team built into plaster landscape moon models for the film. 


Lunar Orbiter 1 took the very first clear image of Earth, as seen from 250,000 miles away, on August 23, 1966. This did not make as big a media splash as the Copernicus crater image, shot from the same Lunar Orbiter. Perhaps in this case, the lack of color – especially the azure blue oceans – made it visually much less interesting.

The Lunar Orbiter missions photographed 99% of the Moon’s surface to a resolution of 1 meter. Like Luna 3, images – taken through a 610 mm telephoto lens and an 80 mm wide-angle lens – are recorded on 70 mm black and white film, and chemically processed onboard in a mini-film laboratory built by none other than the Eastman Kodak Co. Once scanned, the pictures on the photographic negatives were transmitted back to Earth, where the images were pieced together in strips.


In December 1968, humans first orbited the Moon on the Apollo 8 mission. With the enthusiasm of tourists, the Apollo crew caught sight of Earth rising over the moon’s limb and quickly grabbed their Hasselblad camera and clicked off a bunch of snapshots captured in glorious color and sharpness on Kodak Ektachrome film. Purely for the sake of photographic composition, the NASA image release rotated the picture to anchor the moon’s landscape across the bottom of the frame (as opposed to the earlier Lunar Orbiter shot). We’re seeing the Earth laying sideways relative to its spin axis. Regardless of photo orientation, little might the astronauts  have guessed this would rank as one of the most influential images from space exploration. 

Though news media didn’t call it another “picture of the century,” it had a huge social impact and fueled the environmentalist movement in the early 1970s. To see Earth without political borders was a cultural game changer. The snapshot made it immediately clear that humanity lived on a fragile-looking, tiny globe, when seen against the infinite blackness of space.


On February 14, 1990, NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft, hurtling toward interstellar space at 38,000 miles per hour, took a parting glance at our solar system after visiting Jupiter and Saturn. Astronomer Carl Sagan, a member of the Voyager imaging team, came up with the idea of pointing the spacecraft back toward its home for one last look. From a bird’s-eye distance of 3.7 billion miles, Earth, reduced to a blue speck, looked like a mote of dust caught in a beam of sunlight. (Dust is an apt analogy considering the Earth is 1/300,000ththe mass of our Sun.) Sagan wrote in his 1994 book, the Pale Blue Dot: “That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. … There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.” In the history of space imaging, no “dot” has ever been more profound in its philosophical implications for humanity.


The 1978 Kansas rock group song “Dust in the Wind” admonishes: “Now, don’t hang on, nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky. It slips away.” Well, Neil Armstrong’s 1969 footprints on the moon will far outlast any human imprints on Earth. This makes it iconic – bookending our evolution from upright-walking apes to becoming an extraterrestrial species. With no wind or rain – and hopefully no souvineer-hunting future space tourists – the footprints should survive a long time.  

Occasional hits by a micrometeorite could wipe out the footprints. As could the solar wind, a stream of charged particles coming from the Sun, scouring the lunar surface. But the process is exceedingly slow. From past studies of moon rocks collected by astronauts during the Apollo missions, researchers estimate that the rocks erode at a rate of about 0.04 inches every 1 million years. At that rate, the footprints should last for millions of years. Just imagine, that’s much longer than the current age of modern humans on Earth.

In Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel, “Robinson Crusoe,” our stranded protagonist is taken aback by the discovery of a footprint on the beach, realizing that he is not alone on the island. The symbol of the human “footprint” erases the untouched nature of the island, and presages New World colonization. Maybe in some remote future, Armstrong’s footprint will equally mystify an extraterrestrial visitor to our solar system. 


America’s very first landing on another planet took place on July 20, 1976. Never one to miss a photo-op, NASA had the lander begin transmitting the first surface image 25 seconds after touchdown. It took about four minutes to assemble a complete image – in real time – at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, where reporters anxiously waited for the first look. Ironically, the first picture from the Red Planet was black and white, with the camera pointing down at a scattering of rocks. Nevertheless, it was electrifying to everyone. We had touched the surface of another world with our robotic proxy, whose first task was to look around, like any curious visitor. A Viking panorama and color pictures soon followed the footpad image. Nevertheless, that first view was the iconic grand opening of America’s ability to physically contact other worlds. Reality had passed numerous science fiction stories about visiting the Red Planet. 


Descending to Venus’surface is, almost literally, a descent into the biblical Hell. Surface atmospheric pressure is 90 times greater than Earth’s (about the same as the pressure at a depth of a half-mile in Earth’s oceans). And, Venus’surface temperature of 860 degrees Fahrenheit is the same as an electric kitchen oven on self-clean. On December 15, 1970, the Soviet Venera 7lander survived the blistering, crushing environment to send back a few pictures of a bleak, foreboding landscape of depressingly gray igneous rock, under the eternally overcast yellow sky. It was the first – albeit short-lived – view from a landing on Earth’s sister planet.

The irony is that Venus has almost the same amount of surface area as Earth (sans oceans) but in all these years we’ve only gotten an infinitesimally tiny peek at the landscape. Imagine trying to understand earthly landscapes with just a few snapshots of someone’s back yard. As Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle wrote in the 1800s: “… what a waste of space,” regarding the hypothesis that the universe – or in this case, a terrestrial world as big as Venus – might be uninhabitable.

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This Voyager 1 parting snapshot of Saturn and its rings was taken on November 16, 1980, from a distance of 3 million miles from Saturn. The view is striking because for the first time ever, we’re looking out from behind the planet and back toward the Sun, showing Saturn as a crescent. The translucent nature of the rings is apparent because Saturn is visible through parts of the rings. The pitch-black shadow of the immense world slices across the rings, making it look like the rings have a giant notch.

This Voyager 1view was sharp enough to resolve thousands of ringlets, where, from Earth, only several concentric rings can be resolved. This is a perspective that early Saturn watchers, like Galileo Galilei and Christiaan Huygens might have barely been able to imagine. In fact, in 1610, using the newly invented telescope, Galileo could not clearly resolve the rings, and instead called them “ears” on Saturn. Forty years later, using a more powerful telescope than Galileo’s, Huygens was the first to describe them as rings.

For the first time in human evolution, astronauts and our robot emissaries actually traveled across infinite space to other worlds of wonder. This fulfilled English poet and playwright Robert Browning’s 1855 admonition, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?”  This consecutive parade of eye-popping firsts stretched our imaginations into a midnight black universe of infinite depth. Even today, these incredible sights are tough to wrap our minds around.


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