Ranger 7 captured these images as it barreled toward the Moon on July 31, 1964, becoming the first success in the American lunar program. It transmitted more than 4,300 pictures before its planned crash into the Moon along the border between the Sea of Clouds and the Ocean of Storms. The region was later renamed Mare Cognitum -- the Known Sea -- in honor of Ranger's accomplishment. These images were snapped (left to right, top to bottom) from ranges of roughly 1,500, 575, 430, and 60 miles. [NASA]
AUDIO: From a TV camera aboard the Ranger 7 spacecraft, about 17 minutes from lunar impact. The area covered by the initial picture, approximately 450,000 square miles.
More than three years after President John F. Kennedy committed the United States to landing a man on the Moon, things weren’t going well. Not a single American spacecraft had managed to take a picture of the Moon — and some couldn’t even hit it.
AUDIO: As each successive picture is seen, so are smaller craters and other surface features never before seen by man. 292 miles.
One of the first lunar exploration programs was Ranger. Its probes would crash into the lunar surface, snapping pictures during the last few minutes of their approach and conducting other observations. The first few missions failed, causing a program shake-up and some serious questions from Congress and the public.
But 50 years ago today, things began to turn around — Ranger 7 scored the first American success in lunar exploration. It snapped more than 4300 pictures of the Moon before slamming into the surface. The pictures showed details as small as a kitchen table.
AUDIO: 33.4 miles from impact. An area four miles on a side is shown. Three-and-one-half miles to impact. Impact. July 31st, 1964.
Two other successful Ranger missions followed. So did a string of robotic orbiters and landers. They all contributed to the accomplishment of Kennedy’s goal: landing astronauts on the Moon by the end of the decade.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2014
For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.