NASA Celebrates its History With 60 Years’ Worth of Stunning Photos
For 60 years, NASA has been pioneering space exploration. Sure, they missed a few milestones that Russia hit right on the nose, but along the way they did spectacular things (and looked good doing it, too). Read on to see what photos have been buried in NASA’s archives.
1. Lunar Receiving Laboratory
After crashing into the ocean, the Apollo crews and their moon rocks were shuttled into quarantine at the Lunar Receiving Laboratory. The rocks were put in these sealed containers, accessible only via the large (and somewhat creepy) rubber gloves. At the time, NASA was pretty worried about lunar microorganisms infecting everyone with an unknown disease.
But just after Apollo 11 landed, the lead planetary scientist was scrambling: he had only just gotten the moon rocks, but already people were demanding to know all about their properties. The public had never cared so much about geology before, but now the press was eager to hear about the chemical analysis.
2. Space shuttle glow
While this picture looks more sci-fi than science, it’s actually a depiction of a common occurrence in space: space shuttle glow. Whenever a spacecraft enters a low orbit of Earth, any of its surfaces facing wind will glow bright orange. It’s the result of nitric oxide on the spacecraft’s surface reacting with oxygen in the atmosphere.
Together, the two molecules combine forces to create nitrogen dioxide, which glows bright orange. The phenomenon was first understood after astronauts experimented on a space shuttle. So, no, the shuttle isn’t jumping to light speed, flying into hellfire, or entering a black hole. Good guess, though.
3. Yelena Serova: first female cosmonaut to fly to the International Space Station
When it comes to space travel, NASA has astronauts and Russia has cosmonauts. And while more than 100 male cosmonauts had blasted into space by 2014, only three female cosmonauts had done the same. Yelena Serova, the fourth, got to fly all the way up to the International Space Station.
With the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia fell back into strong conservative, traditional values. Girls were regularly dissuaded from pursuing science. The former head of the Russian space agency even said to journalists that spaceflight is not for women. But despite all that, Serova flew into space and lived for five months on the ISS.
4. Gemini 6A splashdown and accompanying Navy divers
When people first started flying to space, NASA would bring them back down smack in the middle of the ocean. To them, the water was the safest place to land, despite the hiccups it caused (like Mercury crew member Gus Grissom almost drowning; hence the Navy divers).
But Russia always landed on land and since NASA currently flies its astronauts on their Soyuz spacecraft, that’s how they land now too. But it isn’t comfortable. One NASA astronaut described it as feeling like “a series of explosions followed by a car crash,” while another said it was “like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, on fire, then crashing really hard.”
5. A family portrait on the moon
Charlie Duke was the tenth man to step foot on the moon but he didn’t just leave footprints behind, he left a family portrait on the surface. The people in the photo are his wife, his two sons, and himself. Since he’d been training for the mission in Florida and his family lived in Houston, Duke wasn’t around much as his kids grew up.
To get the kids excited for his trip, Duke asked if they wanted to go with him — as a family photo. It’s probably still there, just worse for wear. Most likely the photo has faded and the shrink wrap might not be withstanding the 400-degree Fahrenheit heat and near absolute zero temperatures.
6. Buzz Aldrin and a jetpack
A couple of years ago, Buzz Aldrin (the second man on the moon) answered all of the Internet’s questions on a Reddit thread. One person asked, do you regret not getting to do anything in space? There was one thing he regretted: not being able to use a jetpack to move around in space.
In this photo, he’s testing out the equipment, which would have allowed for free movement during a spacewalk, but the experiment was canceled. However, astronauts now wear a sort of jetpack whenever they go on spacewalks. It’s only for emergencies, in case their tether to the spacecraft is damaged.
7. Apollo 16 splashdown
In 1972, Apollo 16 splashed down into the Pacific Ocean after its 11-day stint to the moon and back. Charlie Duke was one of the three-person crew and he remains the youngest person to ever set foot on the moon, at age 36. There was a worrying moment on the moon when Duke was jumping to try and set a record (in the Lunar Olympics) but he fell backward.
Rolling to the side, Duke saved his suit from life-ending damage. After that, the mission was smooth sailing. It’s hard to see in this photo, but even the big red striped parachutes had their own parachutes, which looked like delicate white mushrooms sprouting out of their tops.
8. Curiosity’s out of this world selfie
While hunting for signs of life, Mars rover Curiosity does what anyone would do in a beautiful, remote, never visited place: take selfies. It has the most high powered selfie stick in the solar system: a robotic arm with a high-tech camera attached. But you can’t actually see the arm in the photo, so where is it?
Well, to take the photo, Curiosity rotates the camera arm around itself, taking multiple pictures. Then, the images are put together to form a complete photo. It’s a bit complex for a selfie, but no one likes to see their arm take up half the image, right?
9. Astronaut Dave Scott emerges from Apollo 9
Back in 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon for the first time during the Apollo 11 mission, so what were the previous ten Apollo missions for? Well, they tested out all the things needed for that sweet lunar victory. Apollo 9, for instance, first piloted the Lunar Module in space.
The Lunar Module is the spacecraft that Armstrong and Aldrin eventually flew to the moon, from their spaceship that remained in orbit. In this photo, Apollo 9 crew member Dave Scott is emerging from the Apollo spacecraft to look down on Earth. The photo was taken from the Lunar Module, which was attached to the spacecraft.
10. Technicians working on NASA’s first manned flight
As vapor vented out of Mercury-Redstone, technicians fixed the last few things before the spacecraft took the first American to space. Alan Shepard was up there for all of 15 minutes, but it was a monumental 15 minutes for American history.
After exiting the atmosphere, Shepard peered through a periscope to look at Earth. Unfortunately, it had a gray filter over the lens (which had been used to keep the sun from blinding him pre-launch). He proclaimed, “What a beautiful view!” and later fibbed to journalists about the “brilliantly clear” colors. “I had to say something for the people,” he later said.
11. Neil Armstrong descends to the moon
Just before becoming the first human to ever walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong pulled a cord to release a camera. It took pictures of him as he descended the steps of the Apollo 11 lunar module. Turns out it took a few “one small steps” to get down the ladder and onto the lunar surface.
After making history, Armstrong took the camera and turned it on his crew-mate Aldrin. Like an Instagram boyfriend, he snapped photos of Aldrin that went as viral as photos could go back in 1969 (the truly iconic “man on the moon” photo is of Buzz Aldrin, not Armstrong). Plus, they did some science things.
12. The Gemini 11 crew relaxes
In between astronaut training, the crew and backup crew for Gemini 11 lounged in the Mission Simulator at Cape Kennedy. Neil Armstrong is the brooding one on the far right; he was a backup pilot at the time. Astronauts Dick Gordon and Pete Conrad piloted the mission.
Gemini 11 reached new heights: it broke the altitude record by getting to 850 miles above Earth. As a result, they were able to take the first pictures of Earth as a sphere. Each Gemini mission had a crew of two people, which is how they got the name “Gemini” (the twin constellation).
13. Astronaut Chris Cassidy in the Space Station’s Cupola
In 2010, the International Space Station was about 90 percent finished when it gained its very own sunroom — Earth room? Either way, it’s the solar system’s most stunning bay window ever constructed. It’s called the cupola (from the Italian word for dome) and it gives a breathtaking view of Earth. It’s hard to imagine the ISS without it!
From inside the cupola, astronauts and cosmonauts can watch the Earth as they speed around it. The view is truly unique, so Astronaut Chris Cassidy is taking advantage of it to snap some photos. Any HGTV watchers are probably drooling over these windows.
14. A view of Earth airglow from the ISS
This stunning picture was taken by an astronaut aboard the International Space Station, 250 miles above Australia. The orange and ethereal “airglow” is making Earth look like a luminous beauty. The color results from nitrogen, oxygen, and other molecules in the atmosphere getting excited by the sun’s ultraviolet radiation.
The molecules bump into each other, releasing energy and creating the orange glow in the process. Scientists can study airglow to better understand the movement of particles in the transition area between Earth and space. This way, they can learn more about space weather, Earth weather, and how the two interact.
15. Eternal footprints on the moon
While Charlie Duke’s family photo has since faded away, Neil Armstrong and co’s footprints will be on the moon for millions of years. They might be there until the moon itself disappears because there is no wind to erase them. But meteorites hitting into the surface could erase the footprints and the very very slow solar wind might, but it’s hard to say.
The Internet was abuzz when someone pointed out that the Apollo 11 footprints actually don’t seem to match Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit boots. Well, first off, the famous footprint photo is Buzz Aldrin’s. And second, the pair of astronauts wore moon-boots over their spacesuit boots with treads that did match the footprints.
16. Space shuttle Challenger launches on a stormy day
As metal as this photo is, it’s also rather nervewracking. Lightning could short circuit all the electronics in a space shuttle, so NASA built huge metal towers around their launch pads. Ideally, these towers divert the lightning away from the spacecraft. Usually, NASA plays it safe and delays launch if there’s ever a hint of stormy weather.
Even plain old clouds can be dangerous because the spacecraft can actually generate its own lightning when it passes through a cloud’s electrical field. This happened to Apollo 12, which was struck twice as it launched into space. Luckily, their backup systems saved the day from disaster.
17. Apollo 1 water egress training
Before embarking on a space trip, astronauts train at just about everything they’ll have to do, like for instance, landing in water and emerging from the capsule. It’s called water egress training and the original Apollo 1 crew were doing it with smiles.
While this photo should be a national treasure and truly brings joy to anyone who looks at it, not pictured is the tragedy following about seven months later. The three man crew of Apollo 1 died in the capsule when training for launch: a spark ignited the entire oxygen-rich inside. NASA tried to rescue them, but the fire made toxic fumes and it was over quickly.
18. A huge wind tunnel from 1939
Before sending anything to space, NASA tests it as much as possible. They use huge wind tunnels to understand how materials and spacecraft will fare in high winds, turbulence, icing, ionization, and other conditions. This tunnel at the Langley Research Center was built in 1939 and used until 2004 when it was retired.
The air in this wind tunnel could go faster than the speed of sound, at a max speed of 1,000 miles per hour. In the photo, the technician is about to open a hidden door in the guide vanes. Hopefully, the wind doesn’t turn on and blast him to smithereens, a fate befitting Team Rocket but not a real person.
19. Mae Jemison: the first African American woman in space
Mae Jemison is nearly perfect on paper: she graduated from Stanford and Cornell, volunteered in a Cambodian refugee camp and in the Peace Corps, speaks four languages, and was the first African American woman in space. Since she was a medical doctor, she did scientific experiments on bone cells while in space in 1992.
After that, she taught at Dartmouth and started a company to bring technology to schools worldwide. Now, she’s working toward the end goal of humans traveling beyond our solar system. Okay, sure, she’s more than a little intimidating, but she’s also a huge inspiration to aspiring astronauts the world over.
20. Ed White: first American to spacewalk
Ed White was flying planes at age 12; he was a natural. Before becoming an astronaut, he worked in the Air Force and got his master’s degree in aeronautical engineering. He helped prepare some of the first astronauts (and astrochimps!) for weightlessness by flying them through stomach-dropping maneuvers.
When training for space exploration, Ed White and his fellow astronauts were dropped from a helicopter into Panama’s rainforest, where they ate iguanas and boa constrictors. But soon enough all that paid off and White went to space on Gemini 4 and became the first American to do a spacewalk. But just a couple of years later, White died alongside the other Apollo 1 crew members.
21. Annie Easley: “Human computer” and computer scientist
When she first started working as a computer, Annie Easley was one of four African Americans at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (the precursor to NASA). She did complicated mathematical calculations for researchers, in the same program as the stars of “Hidden Figures.”
Once machine computers replaced the mathematicians, Easley became a computer programmer. She developed code for a variety of NASA programs, all the while doing outreach to encourage women and minorities to enter STEM jobs. One day, to further women’s rights, she made a pact with her supervisor to wear pantsuits to work; she was a positive ray of sunshine at NASA.
22. John Young draws the Gemini 10 spacewalk for the press
NASA’s Gemini program consisted of several manned spaceflights to work out any kinks before embarking on Apollo’s moon missions. For example, they had to successfully dock two spacecraft together, a procedure that would be crucial to landing a man on the moon.
In this photo, astronaut John Young draws out how his copilot will do the spacewalk of Gemini 10. Young flew into space six different times: he piloted Gemini 3 and 10, he set foot on the moon with Apollo 16, and was the first person to pilot the Space Shuttle. At one point, he smuggled a sandwich into space (crumbs can be dangerous to the equipment!).
23. Jupiter’s moon Io
Jupiter has over a dozen different moons, one of which is little Io. It was discovered by Galileo in 1610 but spacecraft today are still studying it and its compatriots. As the most geologically active member of our solar system, Io is constantly having volcanic eruptions.
It turns out that Jupiter’s immense mass and gravity cause all those eruptions, plus another weird thing that keeps happening on Io. Every time Jupiter passes between Io and the sun, the moon’s entire atmosphere collapses. The gas cools and falls to the surface, freezing. Then Io spins back into the sunlight and warms it back into a gas.
24. The Mercury Control Center
Looking at Cape Canaveral’s Mercury Control Center is like a blast from the past. It’s a crazy reminder that humanity literally got to the moon and back before making a cell phone. This cool but retro room is where they supervised the first several American manned spaceflights (the Mercury program).
Part way through the Gemini program, the main control center moved to Houston. Hence the whole, “Houston, we have a problem” which was a little misquoted in “Apollo 13.” What the astronaut really said was, “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” But, let’s be honest, the Tom-Hanks-delivered movie line sounds better.
25. Saturn’s rings
Cassini launched into space on October 15, 1997. It was an ambitious robotic spacecraft collaborated on by NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian space agency. Cassini had one mission: study Saturn and all of its moons in as much detail as possible. It did so for just about 20 years, purposefully diving into a fiery death in Saturn’s atmosphere in 2017.
The probe took beautiful pictures, like this one of Saturn’s rings. Mostly, the planet’s rings are made of ice, but the colors probably come from rocks frozen inside. Some of Saturn’s moons even orbit between these rings, looking like little ravioli with their odd shapes.
26. The Golden Record
NASA’s Golden Record is the ultimate time capsule: 115 photographs, 55 different greetings, 12 minutes of Earth sounds, and 90 minutes of music are encoded in its ridges. But why did NASA make this time capsule? It’s a message to aliens, essentially saying, “This is Earth. We are humans.”
Launched in 1977, the spacecraft Voyager 1 and 2 were the first human created things to go beyond our solar system. NASA imagined that either one of them could be found by an alien race, so they created The Golden Record to convey a brief introduction. Pictured above is the cover of the record, which was etched with instructions on how to play it.
27. Jupiter on The Golden Record
Astronomers Carl Sagan and Frank Drake, artists Jon Lomberg and Linda Sagan, and writers Ann Druyan and Timothy Ferris worked together to curate the contents of The Golden Record. Its cover attempts to explain how to play it and decode its images, the first of which is a simple circle to ensure the aliens are properly decoding it.
After that, the record’s images start by showing the decoder where our solar system is in space. It then defines our numerals and mathematics (hopefully the aliens can figure out this riddle). Following that, the images depict our solar system, including some photos of nearby planets like this one of Jupiter.
28. Earth on The Golden Record
Below is another photo from The Golden Record. It’s a view of Egypt, the Red Sea, the Nile, and the Sinal Peninsula from space. The record also contains images depicting human reproduction, anatomy, and culture. A few of the encoded drawings depict DNA double helices, atom structure, and basic organic chemistry.
There’s an awkward photo of people eating, drinking, and licking that looks like it was straight from iStock; the photo was taken to depict what our mouths are for. Accompanying pictures of people are photos of buildings from various places around Earth, including houses in Africa and the UN’s skyscraper.
29. Astronaut on The Golden Record
This photo of an astronaut is meant to show extraterrestrials what humans look like in space and how we can go into space. In addition to the previously mentioned images, The Golden Record also contained images of Olympic sprinters, the Golden Gate Bridge, and natural places around Earth.
A photo of a page of Isaac Newton’s System of the World was included to depict our writing system and language. Cars, streets, microscopes, music sheets, airplanes, X-rays, animals, and many other sights from around Earth adorn the ridges of The Golden Record. Ideally, from this myriad of pictures, aliens could gain an understanding of us.
30. The Titan-Centaur launch on The Golden Record
On top of the photos, The Golden Record also contains sound samples and music. 55 languages are represented in a range of greetings from, “Hello from the children of planet Earth” in English to “Friends of space, how are you all? Have you eaten yet? Come visit us if you have time” in the Chinese dialect Amoy.
The sounds of whales and a kiss on the cheek are also on the record. Perhaps the most interesting thing etched into the record is a recording of Ann Druyan’s brain waves. Theoretically, they imagined extraterrestrials might be able to decode her thoughts, which were mostly prepared ideas with a few accidental whimsies about being in love. This time capsule may outlast human civilization itself, but it still leaves us wondering: Will someone find and decode it?