It was July 31, 1964. Neil Armstrong wouldn't step out onto the lunar surface for nearly five more years, but NASA was already planning ahead. In preparation, the space agency sent off a series of unmanned Ranger spacecraft in an attempt to get a closer look at the moon. Fifty years ago, Ranger 7 approached the moon on a crash-landing course, snapped a series of photos, and sent them back to mission control before plummeting to its doom.
These were the very first images taken of the moon by a US spacecraft. Up until then, the Ranger spacecraft had been ill-starred. The first two Rangers suffered from launch failure. Ranger probes 3 through 5 all failed in some way or another, two of which actually missed the moon. Ranger 6 seemed to be on target, but the craft's cameras failed.
Ranger 7, however, was a charm. It sent back 4,308 images of the moon over the course of just 17 minutes of flight before smacking into the lunar surface. Those images helped NASA scientists select potential landing sites for the Apollo moon missions and learn more about the surface terrain.
The very first image captured by Ranger 7 is a stunner, even after all these decades where we have since gathered plenty of detailed moon images. It shows craters named Alphonsus, Ptolemaeus, and Arzachel. The image covers about 220 miles from top to bottom. After all the challenges of the Ranger missions, this image stands as a landmark, a moment in time where the 240,000 miles between us and the moon suddenly shrank to almost nothing.