Shooting the Moon: Photos of the Lunar Surface and Beyond

On August 26, 1966 an image graced the front page of the New York Times under the headline, “How the Earth Looks from the Moon.”  The image was of such low quality that the grey sphere which all of mankind calls home was barely recognizable.  Nevertheless, the photograph was remarkable.  For the first time, humans looked beyond the lunar horizon and saw Earth.  The image came from NASA’s Lunar Orbiter project and was dubbed by some as the “Picture of the Century.”  Now, over 50 years later, the photographs have been fully restored thanks to the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project (LOIRP), giving people a new look at an old image.

The first photograph of an “Earthrise.” Seen here is the original photo taken aboard Lunar Orbiter 1 (left) and the photograph obtained from the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project (right). 

Between August 1966 and August 1967, NASA launched a series of five Lunar Orbiter Missions in order to find a landing spot for future manned missions to the moon.   The Lunar Orbiter was an unmanned probe that essentially operated as flying photographic laboratory.  The spacecraft was equipped to photograph the moon on 70 mm film, develop the film, and scan the film in small segments. The scans were then converted to a radio signal which was sent back to Earth.

Lunar Orbiter liftoff from Pad 13, August 10, 1966. Local Identifier: 255-KSC-66PC-174

Upon receiving the transmission, NASA technicians back on Earth saved the image data in two separate methods:

In one method, the signal was converted and played through a kinescope machine, a rudimentary means of recording, in which the image was played through a television tube and a motion picture camera pointed at the screen recorded the image on 35 mm film.  The strips of film were then cut and reassembled by hand to form the complete image.

Since the 70 mm film on the spacecraft was a negative, the 35 mm film recording on the ground produced a positive image, not suitable for producing photographic prints. To enable the production of prints, operators then took another photograph of the assembled strips to produce a comprehensive negative image of the lunar surface, from which prints could be made for scientific analysis of landing sites.  This process was successful in determining a landing spot for the Apollo missions, yet ultimately created low resolution photographs with minimal detail.

The other method involved capturing the original radio signal on 2-inch analog magnetic tapes.  These analog tapes were digitized on primitive UNIVAC supercomputers for scientific analysis of the lunar surface.  The analysis of these tapes initially helped NASA avoid boulders and steep slopes that might endanger the crewed landing, but have otherwise gone largely unused over the past 50 years.

LOIRP Photograph, Farside of the Moon (South) taken with telephoto lens.  Original photograph taken on Lunar Orbiter 2, November 20, 1966.  Local Identifier: 255-LO-2-2075_H2
255-LO-2-2075_M-MediumRes Farside South
LOIRP Photograph, Farside of the Moon (South) taken with wide-angle lens. Original photograph taken on Lunar Orbiter 2, November 20, 1966. Local Identifier: 255-LO-2-2075_M

From 1968 through 1987 the analog tapes were in the custody of the National Archives in Suitland, Maryland. Thanks to the efforts of Nancy Evans, the co-founder of the NASA Planetary Data System and officials from NARA, the tapes were transferred from NARA to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in 1988. Evan’s JPL team acquired the last surviving tape drives that could play the tapes, but was not able to convince NASA to fund the image recovery, thus the tapes sat in NASA storage for decades.

Upon retirement from NASA, Evans obtained the tape drives as salvage and stored them in a horse barn on her property. It was not until 2007 that Dennis Wingo and Keith Cowing, self-described technoarcheologists, took custody of the tapes and began work restoring the original hi-resolution images in a project known as the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project (LOIRP).

LOIRP Photograph, View of the Tycho Crater. Original photograph taken on Lunar Orbiter 5, August 15, 1967. Local Identifier: 255-LO-5-5125_M

The Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project team went to incredible lengths to create the hi-resolution photographs from the original data tapes.  Working out of an abandoned McDonalds at NASA’s Ames Research Center, affectionately called McMoons, the team of engineers worked tirelessly to get machines that could read the antiquated data tapes and convert the raw radio signal to image data. Ten years and approximately 1500 tapes later, the photographs from the Lunar Obiter missions were re-born.

The photographs obtained from the LOIRP are of significantly better quality than the version that was accessible to the public for the last half century.  The image resolution is even comparable to the photographs of the lunar surface taken today.

LOIRP Photograph, The first image of the “Whole Earth.” Original photograph taken on Lunar Orbiter 5, August 8, 1967. Local Identifier: 255-LO-5-5027_H3
LOIRP Photograph, View of the Copernicus Crater. Original Photograph taken on Lunar Orbiter 2, November 24, 1966. Local Identifier: 255-LO-2-2162_H3
LOIRP Photograph, Southeast Mare Tranquillitatis, the Sea of Tranquility, was the ultimate landing site of Apollo 11. Original photograph taken on Lunar Orbiter 3, February 15, 1967. Local Identifier: 255-LO-3-3011_M
LOIRP Photograph. Photograph of the moon originally taken on Lunar Orbiter 5, August 6, 1967.  Local Identifier: 255-LO-5-5007_M

After the LOIRP was complete, copies of the newly created photographs were transferred to the National Archives. The photographs have been processed and are now available in their entirety on the National Archives Catalog. Other images in this blog, including the original “Earthrise” image and the Lunar Orbiter launch are from the Central Photographic File of the Kennedy Space Center (255-KSC). 

For more records related to NASA’s preparation for the manned mission to the moon, along with video footage of the Lunar Orbiter, see our earlier blog post, “Stepping Stones to the Moon.”


Special thanks to Dennis Wingo for his work on the LOIRP and for providing additional information for this blog.  For more information about the LOIRP click here.


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