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Back at the dawn of ‘Earthrise,’ Boeing engineers ruled the sky

This Dec. 24, 1968, file photo made available by NASA shows the Earth behind the surface of the moon during the Apollo 8 mission.  (William Anders/NASA )
This Dec. 24, 1968, file photo made available by NASA shows the Earth behind the surface of the moon during the Apollo 8 mission. (William Anders/NASA )
By Erik Lacitis The Seattle Times

SEATTLE – I first wrote about this astounding image from space in a story than ran 16 years ago. Since then, I’ve kept going back to that picture, the first of the Earth from behind the moon.

It’s just flabbergasting to think how the Boeing engineers and staffers did it back on Aug. 23, 1966.

Five lunar orbiters went into space between 1966 and 1967. The mission for the 850-pound spacecraft was to photograph 99% of the lunar surface to help select landing sites for future Apollo missions.

At the peak of the project, which from start to finish would last just 40 months, Boeing had 1,100 staff members assigned to it. They were mostly people in their 30s, and the company trusted them to get it done.

At age 84, John Dougherty, of Deer Park , is among the diminishing number of Boeing vets from that mission.

He worked ground electronics at a tracking station near Madrid, with stations also in Australia and California, to keep continual track of the signal sent by the spacecraft.

“There is more power in your cellphone than they had in all that gear,” he said about the orbiters.

The Boeing staffers worked with technology that would be considered primitive by today’s standards. The spacecraft carried a 150-pound Eastman Kodak camera with origins in mid-1950s American spy satellites. It carried film that was developed using a semi-dry system, so no liquid developer or fixer was needed.

The Boeing workers and NASA decided to do something not in the mission plan for Lunar Orbiter 1: They turned the spacecraft so it pointed toward Earth.

The result was “Earthrise,” assembled from 60 separate strips of black-and-white 35mm film as it was transmitted back to the tracking stations. It was printed worldwide in publications and created a sensation.

In its company history, Boeing says it was “hailed as the greatest photograph of the 20th century.”

Actually, Life magazine bestowed its “Picture of the Century” award to an image taken by Lunar Orbiter 2 on Nov. 24, 1966. It was of the moon’s Copernicus crater. Taken from 27 miles above at an oblique angle, the photo represented the first time people could see the moon as a world with mountains and boulders, which was not apparent from earlier photos where the view was looking straight down.

“I was in the darkroom as we processed the film,” Dougherty said. “I could see the craters come up. It was the most astounding experience, absolutely amazing.”

He would have been 28 back then. Some things you never forget.

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