On April 3, 2023, NASA announced that humans are soaring back to the Moon for the first time in over 50 years, since the return of Apollo 17 in 1972. Four astronauts, Americans, Reid Wiseman, Victor Glover, Christina Koch, and Canadian Jeremey Hansen, are set to embark on a 10-day journey aboard the Orion spacecraft in a mission NASA hopes will pave the way for sending the first astronauts to Mars. The mission, dubbed “Artemis II,” seeks to establish humanity’s first long-term presence on the Moon, and will set the stage to land the first woman and next man on the Moon during the subsequent “Artemis III” mission.
Unlike the generations before me (a middling Millennial), I have never known the exhilaration of watching my fellow human beings set foot on the moon during my lifetime. My excitement for the years to come is palpable; and I thought there no better way to celebrate this next step in lunar exploration than by revisiting some of humankind’s earlier efforts to map out the surface of the Moon. Fortunately for me (and perhaps for you, dear reader), I work in the Cartographic Branch of the National Archives, and maps are our specialty. So, without further ado, let’s go to the Moon!
The earliest charts depicting the Moon I unearthed in our collection hail from Record Group 77: Records of the Office of the Chief of Engineers. Compiled under the direction of the Military Geology Branch, U.S. Geological Survey in July 1960, these charts, each of which come in two pieces, were created from a photogeologic analysis using stereoscopic vision to examine photographs taken from McDonald Observatory (TX), Yerkes Observatory (WI), Lick Observatory (CA), and the Paris Observatory in France. The charts, alongside a table of data, comprise “The Engineer Special Study of the Surface of the Moon.”
In the early 1960s, NASA ran the Ranger project, the first U.S.-led effort to launch probes directly into the surface of the Moon. The spacecraft were affixed with cameras that would capture and send images of the Moon back to Earth just before impact. The first six Ranger missions were declared either partial or total failures. However, Ranger missions 7-9 were an astounding success. The photographs taken on these missions aided in identifying safe landing sites for the forthcoming Apollo missions. The following charts were compiled from the images taken from the final three Ranger missions, and can be found in RG 342: Records of the U.S. Air Force Commands, Activities, and Organizations.
In 1966 and 1967, the U.S. ran the Lunar Orbiter program. A series of five uncrewed Lunar orbiter spacecraft were sent to orbit the moon in order to identify viable landing sites for the Apollo missions. Each of the missions were successful, and by the end of the fifth mission 99% of the lunar surface had been accurately mapped. This chart, from RG 342: Records of the U.S. Air Force Commands, Activities, and Organizations, shows the Moon’s polar regions based on photographs from all five missions.
The final chart I have to share with you was created during Apollo Mission 17, the last of the Apollo missions, and the last time humans set foot on the Moon or traveled beyond low Earth orbit. The missions launched on December 7, 1972, and the craft returned to Earth on December 19, 1972. Two of the three astronauts conducted scientific experiments on the lunar surface, while one remained in orbit to gather photographs and mapping data.
Perhaps one day, several decades from now, a Cartographic Archives Technician will write a blog post about the wealth of information we learn from 21st century space exploration.
For more information about U.S.-lead space exploration, visit https://www.nasa.gov/missions.