NASA Helped Earth Take Her First Crummy Selfie Way Back in 1959
The day NASA fired up the thrusters of the Thor DM-18 Able III rocket, it was 58 years ago on August 7, 1959. Onboard the rocket, a small satellite Explorer 6 housed instrumentation to snap a picture of Earth once it was an Earth-sized arm length away.
The image, taken in black and white, would be the best image of the planet until the Blue Marble image taken by Apollo 17 would bump it from classroom walls.
Albeit crude by modern standards, at the time, the photo was some of the most valuable marketing NASA had for the future. It nearly didn’t happen.
All told, sixteen of these rockets launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Only six launches failed. The first launch carried a little mouse named MIA (Mouse in Able).
MIA didn’t make it back safely, one of NASA’s early casualties, but not the last. Two more mice would not survive subsequent attempts, even though the second and third survived the launch and space.
The problem was re-entry. Both capsules sank in the ocean before the crew could recover them.
The Thor-Able rockets were expendable rockets, designed for testing re-entry craft, and for putting satellites in orbit. A few lunar probe launches also suffered issues, proving what the private space industry has learned in recent years; space is hard.
After NASA finally managed to get a few probes launched into space without incident, they decided to send up Explorer 6.
Around NASA they called the satellite the “Paddlewheel,” due to the shape of the satellite when all four solar cell paddles extended.
Amongst her missions, Explorer 6 would study (from the NASA site) “trapped radiation of various energies, galactic cosmic rays, geomagnetism, radio propagation in the upper atmosphere, and the flux of micrometeorites.”
Basically, they designed Explorer 6 to measure a few of the things scientists worried about in terms of their effects on astronauts. But, there was more.
Inside Explorer 6 was a photocell scanner, which functioned without man or mouse at the helm. The plan was, when the Paddlewheel reached the 17,000-mile mark, she would turn and snap a selfie of Earth.
The goal for the image was to see the cloud cover of Earth.
At 17,000 miles, the orbit for the Paddlewheel was high. There was a small problem with the orbit portion of the launch, where only three of the four solar cell paddles extended.
The satellite had enough power to operate, but it would fade much faster than planned. On August 14, 1959, Explorer 6 took the first photo of Earth from an orbiting satellite.
It took 40 minutes to transmit to a receiver in Hawaii. It was about the blurriest thing ever photographed, but we got it before the satellite started to fall apart.
By September, one of the VHF transmitters failed, and by October 6, 1959, NASA lost contact with Explorer 6. They’d collected 827 hours of analog data and 23 hours of digital.
On July 1, 1961, the orbit of Explorer 6 decayed, beginning its eventual return to Earth.
Explorer 6 would enjoy a minor reprieve as an orbiting target for rockets designed to take out satellites. We missed the target, sparing the Paddlewheel for another day, but the satellite would come home.
On June 30, 1961, Explorer 6 made its fiery descent into Earth’s atmosphere.