Almost exactly 50 years before the New Horizons probe brought us a new view of Pluto, the world got its first close-up glimpse of Mars.
Human beings had been looking at the planet forever—first as a distant reddish light in the sky, later with telescopes that presented a tantalizing view of what seemed like canals, weather and frost. But it wasn’t until July 15, 1965, when NASA’s Mariner IV mission made its first photo transmissions, that mankind got its first zoomed-in view of Mars. Though the mission also relayed important information about Mars’ atmosphere and radiation, it was the photography—from a mission that set a new record for long-distance communication—that got the most attention back on Earth.
The unmanned mission had been plagued by malfunctions early in its months-long journey and even on “encounter day,” July 14, there was a false alarm when it appeared that the recorder capturing the photographs wasn’t working right. Even taking the pictures was a difficult process—but it proved worth the trouble.
The picture was grainy and ill-defined, a blur of white curving across a black background. It would take months of painstaking analysis to determine what it really showed. But one quick glance gave the scientists at Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory the most important message of all: from 135 million miles in space, their spacecraft, Mariner IV, had sent home the first closeup portrait man has ever made of the far-off planet Mars.
While all the world watched and waited, the ambitious timetable of U.S. space exploration had been put to its most demanding test. And the high, undulating whine of JPL’s computers seemed to change subtly into a cry of exaltation. Mariner had made it.