How the first image of the whole Earth was taken


Kevin Kelly says: "The very first image of the whole Earth was made in 1966. It was fax quality, sent back by the Lunar Orbit 1. Most remarkable was the ingenious contraption that took a picture, developed the film, scanned it and transmitted it back, all in analog, with mechanical moving parts, in zero gravity and a total vacuum."

NASA's landmark photo providing the first glimpse of our home planet from deep space occurred 45 years ago today.


  1. Zero gravity, indeed! It orbited the Moon, not landed on it.

    The machines that landed on the Moon were the Rangers. The first one to transmit TV pictures of its descent was Ranger 7.  I have a diode of the type that failed in an earlier Ranger mission, causing the spacecraft to not return any photos. My dad was on the team that studied the failure. How did they know it was that diode? Good question. They were smart back then.

  2. Zero gravity, indeed! It orbited the Moon, not landed on it.

    To be unnecessarily pedantic, if it wasn’t for the Moon’s gravity, the orbiter could not have orbited it.  Without gravity, it would have just shot out into space.  ;)

    Technically, you should say “free fall” instead of “zero gravity” in a case like this.

    1. “free fall” instead of “zero gravity”

      Or “in a frame of reference indistinguishable from zero gravity”, if you believe in general relativity.

      1. Or “in a frame of reference indistinguishable from zero gravity”, if you believe in general relativity.

        The preferred reference frame is a lie!

  3. Holy cow, I’ve actually got an original print of that vary same image (along with geometrical perspective piece showing exactly how it was taken). My grandfather was a project head at JPL at the time so these pieces are originals from JPL. I’m sure there are a few more out there, but I’ve yet to see or hear of another copy. 

    Edit: I see the article also has a copy of the geometrical perspective I have.

  4. We fetishize this stuff because we’re not doing anything new in space that’s remotely interesting.

    1. First time doing anything is always interesting/significant. No need to call it “fetishizing”.

  5. (Sorry first time posting here, just excited!) – Trying to attach a couple photos I just took of the two pieces I have regarding this.

    1. That is incredibly awesome and I’m extremely jealous – I would be excited too if I had those on my wall!
      I’m sure your grandfather had some really interesting stories to tell too!

  6. thats all super cool and I love the camera, but I don’t think orbiting the moon is “deep space”…usually thats reserved for interstellar space, or at the very least interplanetary (not to mention intergalactic, and thats Deep)

    1. Anything beyond Earth Orbit is considered “Deep Space”. The only humans to have travelled in deep space are the Apollo astronauts. It is a very different environment than free-fall.

    1.  >>Looks like a project from Make Magazine!

      for that subset of Makers that weld titanium tubing in their basements.

  7. In ’59 the Russia’s Luna-3 used a similar shoot-develop-scan-send approach to return the first photo of the far side of the moon. This was pretty standard technology back then, using a chemically processed image to buffer the data for transmission. I took a lab course where they had just replaced mercury delay line buffers with cheap 200 bit shift registers. The old delay lines used vibrations in a tube of mercury to buffer data, and you could actually build a computer that used this as memory. Luckily, I got to work with a bunch of shift registers instead.

  8. Actually the data that exists on NASA’s tapes is way better than “fax quality”. That’s just being lazy and not bothering to read up on the current restoration project underway  (I swear I read about in Wired which Kevin Kelley is the founding executive editor of.) A great story about missing data tapes, vintage Ampex machines stashed in garages, and an abandoned McDonalds at Ames AFB.
    Check out the current high resolution(!!!) version of the famous Earthrise photo on wikipedia:

    1. Fax is a generic term for any form of scanned image transmission. The old analogue wire picture system used by the press was known as fax, too. Weatherfax is still transmitted on the HF frequencies. Jodrell Bank borrowed a press picture fax to print the Russian Luna pictures, and scoop the world.

  9. Wow, I feel really young right now. I actually thought, “What’s so hard about that?” until I got to the part reminding me that it was actual film, chemically developed without human involvement, and sent to earth by fax.

  10. I had an awesome summer job when I was younger doing web design for the USGS Astrogeology Science Center. Part of my job was to help restore the prints from these missions. A lot of them were marked up with grease pens to highlight interesting stuff. The images are huge and absolutely incredible to look at.

  11. I suppose some would have us believe this camera project was conceived solely to facilitate story boards for the making of NASA’s moon landing special effects blockbuster (or, that the footage in this story is also fake).

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