50 Years Ago Today, a U.S. Spacecraft Took Its First Pictures of the Moon

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July 31 2014 12:53 PM

50 Years Ago Today, Ranger 7 Took a Lunar Death-Dive

On July 31, 1964—50 years ago today—the Ranger 7 probe snapped the very first picture of the Moon ever taken by a U.S. spacecraft. Here's what it saw:

Ranger 7 pic of the Moon
Not long before the end, Ranger 7 had this view of the lunar surface.

Photo by NASA

Ranger 7 was the first of many to follow. It was designed to do two things: impact the Moon and take pictures along the way. It worked beautifully. That picture above was taken at 13:08:45 UTC, when it was just over 2,000 kilometers from the surface. It took thousands of pictures before impacting minutes later (I've always loved the final image it took).

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I have to say, thinking about this gave me chills. We've been exploring other worlds via spacecraft for (just barely) longer than I've been alive. Since that time, more than 50 additional spacecraft have achieved orbit around another celestial body (not including those orbiting the Sun). Many more have performed flybys; every big planet in the solar system has been visited, and we have a probe flying past Pluto next year. A dozen humans have walked on another world, and more than 500 have been into space.

I'm tempted to say we live in a time of miracles of wonders, but they're not miracles. They're the achievements of human beings using math, physics, and engineering. Using science. And using their imagination and determination because they knew, no matter what, we will and we must explore the Universe.

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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