NASA’s lunar assault began with a spectacular breakthrough: the “crashlander” Ranger VII was the first space probe to send close-up pictures of the Moon before it impacted on the lunar surface.

Ranger VII photographed its way down to target in a lunar plain, named Mare Cognitum (the Known Sea) following the success of the mission, south of the Crater Copernicus, at latitude 10.35°S and longitude 20.58°W. It sent pictures from six cameras to waiting scientists, engineers and astronomers who “were delighted at the clarity of the images which confirmed that there were lunar areas topographically suitable for manned landing sites” (Cortright, pg. 46).

This historic final photograph was transmitted by the F-A camera and its 25mm, f/1 lens some 2.3 seconds before Ranger VII’s impact on the lunar surface from an altitude of about three miles. This image has an incredible resolution of .5 meters. The smallest craters seen are approximately 30-feet in diameter and ten-feet deep. The spacecraft was destroyed while transmitting, resulting in the receiver noise pattern.

The Ranger VII lunar lander was the first true success in the United States’ early quest to explore the Moon and heralded a new era of exploration that saw dramatically more mission successes than failures. The images, which showed the lunar surface in stunning detail, were the harbinger of future human exploration of the Moon.