navigation image mapnext pagetable of contentsprevious page

To keep space photography in perspective, we note that the U.S. Air Force conducted film photography of the Earth's surface, as differentiated from weather satellite imaging (Section 14), since 1960, under the now-declassified CORONA program. This program amassed thousands of high resolution pictures, but these and the programs that procured them (CORONA, ARGON, and LANYARD) were highly classified then. Published in Life, the National Geographic, and many newspapers, the Gemini photographs were the first real demonstration of the scientific and applied utility of space photography. They are, even today, of archival value, because in three decades since they were taken, in some places significant geomorphic and environmental changes have altered the appearance of the terrain. Africa's Lake Chad, for example, has visibly shrunk, as has the Aral Sea in Asia. Terrain photos often showed oceanographic features well, and were studied intensively by R.L. Stephenson and others. The Gemini astronauts also conducted a wide range of astronomical and other specialized types of photography.

The most important result of the Gemini terrain photography was its stimulus to what eventually became the Landsat program. Under the leadership of W.A. Fischer and W. Pecora, the Gemini pictures were the central evidence cited by the U.S. Geological Survey in proposing its Earth Resources Observation Satellite (EROS) in 1966. Interagency conflicts arose, but in due course, EROS became ERTS, the Earth Resources Technology Satellite, later renamed Landsat. A popular account of these developments has been published by Hall *). However, not many people realize that ERTS was an Apollo Program spinoff, in that the Gemini photography was an effective catalyst to stimulate satellite remote sensing, as postulated by Lowman (1996) *. ERTS undoubtedly would have developed anyway, as an offshoot from weather satellite imaging, but we suggest that Gemini advanced it by perhaps five years.

Apollo Photography

The Apollo Program was an umbrella label that included the Gemini, Skylab, and Apollo-Soyuz Projects. The first two Apollo manned missions, Apollos 7 and 9, stayed in low-Earth orbit. Apollo 7, in 1968, commanded by Wally Schirra, was the first flight test of the Command and Service Module. During the 11 days in orbit, the crew took about 500 photographs of Earth, again using color film in Hasselblad cameras. This scene looking southwest shows the Salton Sea and Imperial Valley, with the Peninsular Ranges of southern California in the background and block fault mountains in southwest Arizona and California's Mojave Desert in the lower part.

Color photograph of the Salton Sea and Imperial Valley areas of California, taken during the Apollo 7 mission.

12-5: The U.S.-Mexican border is visually evident in this photo. What defines this boundary?

Although of excellent quality, the Apollo 7 pictures never received detailed analysis, because of the tight flight schedule involving the first lunar trip in Apollo 8.

The Apollo 8 trip, famed for its broadcast of greetings on Christmas Eve as the crew circled the Moon, was something of an improvisation to test the Saturn V launch vehicle before the Lunar Module was ready for flight. Another goal was to insure that the Soviet Union's Zond spacecraft did not make the first lunar mission (see Shepard and Slayton, 1994) *. As the first manned mission ever to reach escape velocity, it had enormous impact worldwide. The hand-held 70mm photographs, including the first color pictures of the Earth rising from the limb of the Moon,

Color photograph of an Earthrise of the lip of the moon, taken during the Apollo 8 mission.

were truly historic. They took scores of lunar surface photos, and, although coverage was sporadic, compared to the pictures from the five Lunar Orbiter missions, they proved fascinating to the public and scientists alike.

The first manned flight of the complete stack, i.e., Saturn V booster with all components or stages, was the low-Earth orbit, Apollo 9 mission. After completing tests of the Lunar Module, the crew, commanded by Col. J.A. McDivitt, acquired more than 1,100 70mm color photos of Earth, using single, hand-held cameras. As an example, check this shot, looking along the East Coast of the U.S, with North Carolina in the foreground, the Delmarva and Delaware Peninsulas in the middle, and Long Island near the top right.

Color photograph of the east coast of the U.S., taken during the Apollo 9 mission.

Furthermore, they did a film rehearsal of ERTS, employing coaxially-mounted 70mm cameras with color and black and white film, to produce multispectral terrain photographs, as part of the S065 experiment (Lowman, 1980) *. The montage of four photos that cover San Diego and the California/Mexico Peninsular Ranges includes the following filters: upper left: false color infrared; upper right: green filter; lower left: red filter; lower right: black and white infrared.

Montage of photographs that cover San Diego and the California/Mexico Peninsular Ranges, taken during the Apollo 9 mission to test out the ERTS film.

The writer, in his role as a Principal Investigator in this experiment, used these pictures, along with ground truth and geological map data, to generate this interpretive sketch map:

Interprative sketch map derived from the previous montage of photographs.

The Apollo 9 mission was the most productive flown to that time, yielding superb pictures, some of which to this day are the best records from space of certain areas. Some people suggest that Earth's atmosphere was actually clearer in 1969 than when Shuttle missions began some years later. For example, the Amazon Basin, a "blue ocean" in the words of the Gemini 9 astronauts, was by the 1990s generally obscured from smoke rising from massive land clearing.

Geostationary weather satellites, Galileo, and other spacecraft have returned great pictures of the full Earth from space. But, still ranking number one (in request popularity) is this photo of our planet, showing Africa and surrounding oceans, taken during Apollo 17's return from the final manned mission to our lunar neighbor.

Color photograph of the entire globe, taken during the Apollo 17 mission.

12-6: Why does the middle third of Africa appear dark compared to, say, the African desert (Sahel) to the north? ANSWER

Collectively, the deep space Apollo views of Earth have been credited as a major force in stimulating the environmental movements of the 1960s and later, by reminding us of the incredible isolation of this blue and white planet in the blackness of space.

The six Apollo lunar landing missions also returned enormous numbers of photographs of Earth's satellite from lunar orbit and on the surface. Masursky, et. al., published a good collection of these in 1978 *. Here are two Apollo 16 examples: an oblique photo (top) that shows the impact crater Aristarchus and a neighboring crater of probable volcanic origin, as attested by its lack of a central peak and terraces, and the large (Schroeter's) rille traced to it; and (bottom) a near vertical close-up of Tsiliokovsky Crater on the lunar farside.

B/W photograph of the area around the impact crater Aristarchus on the Moon, taken during the Apollo 16 mission.
B/W photograph of the Tsiliokovsky Crater on the lunar farside, taken during the Apollo 16 mission.

navigation image mapnext pageprevious

Primary Author: Nicholas M. Short, Sr. email:

Collaborators: Code 935 NASA GSFC, GST, USAF Academy
Contributor Information
Last Updated: September '99

Webmaster: Bill Dickinson Jr.
Site Curator: Nannette Fekete

Please direct any comments to