Fifty years ago tomorrow Ranger 7 took the first close-up images of the Moon, just before the spacecraft crashed onto the surface.
“It was like looking at a soft quilt or something, no jagged edges on anything,” muses Jim Burke, as if he’s describing something every school kid hasn’t seen a hundred times. “It looked like fresh snow in a way, except it was grey instead of white.”
At the time—50 years ago tomorrow—Burke was one of the first people on Earth to see what the surface of the Moon looks like up close. Early on the morning of July 31, 1964, he joined his colleagues in poring over a series of printed photographs, the pockmarked Moon getting closer and closer until one final blurred image marked the moment when Ranger 7 impacted the surface, making its own brand-new crater. A stripe of static along one side of that last photo indicated the interruption of the final transmission.
The article details the frustrating history of the Ranger program, with the first six attempts all failing. Ranger 7 succeeded, however, working so well that the last image actually got truncated at impact. The full set of images revealed the surprising cratered history of the Moon, with the impact rate of large to small craters far more complex than expected.