With the USSR's launch of the unmanned Sputnik I satellite in October 1957, the United States was racing to best its communist competitor at space exploration. After this accomplishment, the Soviets soon became the first to have a satellite orbit the earth, the first to send animals and then humans into space. While the Americans were able to match these feats, it was never a nation that has taken well to staying in second place for very long. With the moon being the obvious next frontier to explore, it was imperative to gain an edge on the competition. NASAs Ranger program accomplished that end, and on this day in 1964, the spacecraft Ranger 7 sent back the first high definition photos of the lunar surface.
Unfortunately, early NASA programs more often than not were overwhelming failures while the USSR was already taking photographs of the moon courtesy of their Luna probes and making plans to make a soft landing on the moon's surface. It was imperative that NASA's Ranger series of probes be a success. The idea was to launch the spacecraft—each equipped with an array of television cameras—on a collision course with the moon, taking pictures during those final minutes before impact. Unfortunately, the first six in the series succumbed to technical failures or missed the moon entirely. For NASA, the success of Ranger 7 was imperative. Luckily, with no technical foul-ups plaguing the mission, the Ranger 7 was able to transmit photos that revealed details of the lunar surface that could not have been observed via telescope and helped pave the way for the first manned lunar landing in 1969.
You can see a replica of Ranger 7 at the Air and Space Museum in gallery 112—it was assembled from the parts of Ranger test vehicles. You can also check out the video footage shot by Ranger 7 below as well as an extended piece on the space mission published by Air and Space magazine.