Wired's Brandon Keim commemorates
the 45th anniversary of the transmission of the first space probe pictures taken of Mars, by NASA's Mariner 4
(more images are available via NASA's site here
The half-ton space camera flew past Mars eight months after being shot from Earth on an Atlas rocket, having traveled 325 million miles. It flew within 6,000 miles of the planet’s surface, snapping 22 digital photographs before continuing into space. They were the first close-ups ever taken of another planet, and it was only appropriate that the subject was Mars, a source of fascination since the beginning of recorded history.
There were, alas, none of the canals seen by astronomers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, nor evidence of senders of messages heard by Nikola Tesla or Gugliemo Marconi. Indeed, the hazy images of a barren, crater-strewn landscape ended speculation that Mars might plausibly be inhabited by higher life forms. But those low-resolution — 0.04 megapixel — images stirred the soul in different ways, and they paved the way for future photo shoots that would reveal a planet every bit as fantastic as imagined.
Someone--I think it was Patrick Moore
in his 1999 book on Mars
--said that if people before the first space probes made the mistake of thinking Mars essentially and excitingly Earth-like, after they saw Mariner 4
's low-resolution photographs of a small single-digit percentage of the Martian surface they made the second mistake of thinking Mars essentially and boringly Moon-like and dead. It was only later, with the space probes of the 1970s including the famous Viking
landers, that people realized that Mars was Mars-like, a world unto itself. Here's to Mariner 4
for helping our civilization work through the dialectic to that point.