Top NASA Photos of All Time

50 indelible images from the first 50 years of spaceflight

1. Earth GPN-2000-001138 -1100 x 500.jpg
#1. View of Earth from Apollo 17.

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which began its operations on October 1, 1958, we offer this list of the 50 most memorable images from NASA’s history (see all 50 in the photo gallery below). We recognize that any such ranking is inherently subjective. The rationale for why any one image ranked two slots higher than any other combines several factors, including our attempt to balance the list between human spaceflight, satellite imaging, and planetary exploration. Many wonderful images did not make the final cut—we couldn’t convince the editors to give us 20 pages instead of 10.

The list omits significant events from space history that were not NASA achievements, such as the famous 1958 photograph of Wernher von Braun and the other architects of the Explorer 1 satellite celebrating their success by holding a model of the satellite over their heads, an event that occurred months before NASA existed. Photos from the Apollo moon program predominate, as well they should—it remains the agency’s crowning achievement. We also recognize that, even though the first “A” in NASA stands for “aeronautics,” our list is light on aeronautical breakthroughs. Our only excuse is that the ranking reflects the affinity of the division of space history staff for space topics.

Topping the list is the view of the whole Earth above, arguably the most influential image to come out of the American space program.  Used significantly by the environmental movement (although NOT, as often reported, the inspiration for Earth Day). This particular shot was from Apollo 17, but all of the moon-bound astronauts took similar photos. Although a satellite had returned a picture of the whole Earth in 1967, it wasn’t until humans saw this view for the first time a year later that it entered our collective mind.

We welcome the discussion we know this list will spark. Debating which images should or shouldn’t have been ranked, and how high, would be an appropriate way to mark the past half century of NASA’s accomplishments.

2. EarthRise, 1968 The Last Whole Earth Catalog described this image as: “The famous Apollo 8 picture of Earthrise over the moon that established our planetary facthood and beauty and rareness (dry moon, barren space) and began to bend human consciousness.” NASA
3. Buzz Aldrin on the moon, 1969 The best photo of the first humans on another heavenly body. (Neil Armstrong is reflected in Aldrin’s visor.) Reproduced worldwide, silk-screened by Andy Warhol. So iconic that many depictions of astronauts reproduce the bent arm — without knowing why. NASA
4. “Pillars of Creation,” 1995 Probably the most celebrated image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. This color-enhanced view of a star-forming region in the Eagle Nebula is a scientific data trove and an aesthetic masterpiece. NASA/European space agency/STSCI/Jeff Hester, Paul Scowen
5. Gemini 4 Spacewalk, 1965 First American spacewalk (Russian Alexei Leonov beat Ed White by three months) and first photographs of a person floating in space taken by another person in space. NASA
6. Bootprint on the Moon, 1969 Photographed by Buzz Aldrin, in accordance with Apollo 11 mission objectives, as a way for scientists to investigate the properties of the lunar soil. Stands as the classic image representing human presence on the moon. NASA
7. “Presidential Panorama” on MARS, 1997 The Sojourner rover (left of large rock) as seen from the Mars Pathfinder lander (foreground). Created expressly to present a high-quality panoramic image to the U.S. President (Bill Clinton), the picture was stitched together from multiple photographs. NASA
8. Challenger (STS 51-L) Exhaust Trail, 1986 The destruction of the space shuttle Challenger 73 seconds after liftoff on January 28, 1986. An image that is instantly recognizable to millions who saw the event played over and over again on television. NASA
9. Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, 1979 Voyagers 1 and 2 both photographed Jupiter during flybys in 1979. The Great Red Spot, an ancient storm so large that three Earths could fit inside it, had been photographed from Earth before, but never in such detail. NASA
10. Saturn V Launch, 1969 Liftoff of Apollo 11. Among the best known photos of the giant rocket. NASA
11. First step on the Moon, 1969 An estimated half billion people experienced it this way: in black-and-white, on television. NASA
12. Mercury Astronauts The “Original Seven,” as they came to be known, were all male, and all military test pilots. Only one — Alan Shepard (back row, far left), the first American in space — made it to the moon, on Apollo 14 in 1971. NASA
13. Hubble Ultra Deep Field, 2004 The deepest (most sensitive) view ever taken of the night sky in visible wavelengths. The million-second exposure, taken over the course of 400 orbits by the Hubble Space Telescope, shows more than 10,000 galaxies. NASA/ESA/STSCI
14. Untethered Spacewalk, 1984 Bruce McCandless II ventured more than 300 feet from space shuttle Challenger in his jet-powered Manned Maneuvering Unit during mission STS 41-B. The first untethered spacewalk in Earth orbit. NASA
15. PRESIDENT NIXON VISITS APOLLO 11 CREW, 1969 John F. Kennedy started the Apollo program, but it was Richard Nixon who greeted Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin (left to right) in quarantine on board the recovery ship Hornet upon their return from the moon. NASA
16. Irwin and flag at Hadley Base, 1971 One of Apollo’s primary goals was boosting America’s image as a technological superpower. James Irwin and David Scott’s Apollo 15 mission was the first to carry a four-wheel rover, which allowed for more extensive exploration. NASA
17. Earth and Moon, 1977 Thirteen days after launch on September 5, 1977, on its way to Jupiter, Voyager 1 looked back and took the first-ever long-distance picture of the Earth and moon together. (The moon has been artificially brightened.) NASA
18. Microwave background, 1992 The Cosmic Background Explorer is the only NASA project to earn a Nobel Prize (in 2006) for its principal scientists. Among COBE’s results was this map of the cosmic microwave background left over from the Big Bang. NASA
19. First photo on Mars, 1976 On July 20, 1976, seven years to the day after Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon, Viking 1 made the first landing on Mars. The robot spacecraft’s first picture was of its own footpad, just minutes after touchdown. NASA
20. Skylab Orbital Workshop, 1974 NASA’s first space station, Skylab, was almost an immediate failure. The first crew, led by Pete Conrad, saved the mission by installing a sunshade to replace a meteoroid/sun shield that had torn off during launch. NASA
21. Sally Ride, STS-7, 1983 The first American woman in space. Selected to fly on the space shuttle’s seventh mission, Ride was one of six women selected to become astronauts in 1978, breaking a two-decade-long tradition of an all-male corps. NASA
22. Apollo 1 fire, 1967 The first fatal U.S. space accident, and the first serious setback for NASA’s moon program. Ed White, Gus Grissom, and Roger Chaffee died during a ground test, when a spark ignited a fire in their sealed, oxygen-rich Apollo command module. NASA
23. X-15, 1960 The X-15 made 199 flights to the edge of space between 1959 and 1968. Among its pilots was a young Neil Armstrong. NASA
24. Kennedy commits to the moon, 1961 President John F. Kennedy’s call for a moon landing “before this decade is out” on May 25, 1961, was a gamble. At the time, U.S. human spaceflight experience consisted of Alan Shepard’s lone 15-minute flight, three weeks earlier. NASA
25. Glenn in orbit, 1962 Ten months after Yuri Gagarin, John Glenn orbited Earth — and returned a national hero. m NASA
26. Craters on Mars, 1965 The first close-ups of the Martian surface, taken by the passing Mariner 4 spacecraft, were a disappointment to those hoping to see signs of life. The photos showed a dead, cratered surface. NASA
27. Saturn 1 Launch, 1965 The Saturn rocket team included many German émigrés, most of them at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. Among those watching a launch at Cape Canaveral on May 25, 1965, are Kurt Debus (pointing, center), Wernher von Braun (to his left), and Eberhard Rees (leaning). NASA
28. Apollo 13, 1970 It wasn’t until they photographed their abandoned service module before reentering Earth’s atmosphere that Apollo 13 astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise saw the extensive damage resulting from an onboard explosion that kept them from landing on the moon. NASA
29. First Space Shuttle launch, 1981 Shuttle Columbia lifts off with John Young and Robert Crippen on board, April 12, 1981. The shuttles have carried more people into orbit than all other space vehicles combined, and are still flying 27 years later. NASA
30. Alan Shepard, Freedom 7, 1961 Launched east from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on a short suborbital hop, Alan Shepard, the first American in space, “splashed down” for an ocean recovery by helicopter — a familiar scene in the 1960s. NASA
31. Echo 2 satellite, 1964 Satellite communications pioneers tried several methods of relaying signals from space, including the inflatable ECHO balloons, which successfully reflected telephone, radio, and TV signals back to Earth. NASA
32. First TV image of earth from orbit, 1960 The first weather satellite, TIROS 1, was equipped with television cameras that photographed Earth’s cloud cover — the first in a long line of orbiting atmospheric monitors. NASA
33. Apollo-Soyuz, 1975 Alexei Leonov (left) had trained to be the first Soviet man on the moon. Mercury astronaut Deke Slayton had been sidelined for years due to a heart condition. Their “handshake in space” in July 1975 had more to do with U.S.-Soviet détente than with space exploration. NASA
34. Deep Impact hits a comet, 2005 This simple but spectacular experiment — smashing a projectile into a comet nucleus so scientists could study the material that flew out from the icy core — made a public splash by colliding with Comet Tempel 1 on July 4, 2005. NASA
35. Comet Shoemaker-Levy, 1994 The largest impact event ever recorded. After scientists predicted that Comet Shoemaker-Levy would break up and collide with Jupiter, all eyes — including the Hubble Space Telescope — turned to watch the impacts, which appeared as dark spots in the Hubble images. Hubble Space Telescope Jupiter Imaging Team
36. Harrison Schmitt, Apollo 17, 1972 The only scientist to land on the moon, Schmitt had helped train other astronauts to be field geologists. The last Apollo expedition covered the most territory; the astronauts ventured miles from their landing site. NASA
37. Landsat image, 2002 The LANDSAT Earth observation satellites have returned an unbroken record of Earth photography since the first was launched in 1972. The most recent in the series, Landsat 7, took this image of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, on June 22, 2002. NASA
38. Viking 2 on Mars, 1976 The second of two Viking landers touched down on Utopia Plain on September 3, 1976. Due to dust suspended in the thin atmosphere, the Martian sky appeared pink. NASA
39. Solar flare from Skylab, 1973 NASA satellites stationed between Earth and the sun keep constant watch over the local star. The sun was an object of intense study by astronauts on the Skylab space station of the 1970s, which carried eight solar instruments. NASA
40. International Space Station, 2008 The largest object ever flown in space. First proposed in 1984, the orbiting laboratory is now nearly complete, with European and Japanese modules added earlier this year. NASA
41. Servicing Hubble, 1993 The Hubble Space Telescope was designed to be serviced regularly by shuttle astronauts, who have repaired and upgraded the orbiting observatory four times. A final service call is scheduled for this fall. NASA
42. Saturn from Cassini, 2004 The U.S./European Cassini spacecraft arrived in orbit around Saturn in July 2004, and is now on an extended tour of the ringed planet and its moons. The Huygens probe, dropped onto Titan’s surface in January 2005, was the first visitor to that moon. NASA
43. Shuttle ferry flight, 1998 The space shuttle is ferried home to Florida on a Boeing 747 after (now rare) California landings. NASA
44. Showering on Skylab, 1973 The first U.S. space station had some of the comforts of home, including a galley and a shower (with a vacuum to collect the water). Jack Lousma (pictured) flew on the second (59-day) Skylab mission. The longest stay was 84 days. NASA
45. Shuttle mid-deck, 1983 By the space shuttle’s eighth mission, astronaut crews had grown larger and more diverse. STS-8 had five people. Guy Bluford (right), the first African-American in space, was also on the record-setting, eight-person crew of STS 61-A two years later. NASA
46. Volcano on Io, 1979 Among the most important discoveries of the Voyager 1 mission was a plume erupting over Jupiter’s moon Io, seen serendipitously in a long-exposure photo — the first volcanic eruption ever detected beyond Earth. NASA
47. Eileen Collins, 1999 The former test pilot was the first woman commander of a space shuttle mission, on STS-93. NASA
48. Ice on Europa, 1998 NASA’s Galileo mission to Jupiter paid special attention to the moon Europa, where an ocean underlies a cracked shell of water ice. The ocean is a likely place to search for life. NASA
49. Voyager Interstellar record, 1977 Because the twin Voyager spacecraft would leave the solar system, astronomer Carl Sagan and others created an analog record of sights and sounds from Earth as a message to any civilization that might some day encounter it. NASA
50. Shuttle Enterprise with cast of star trek, 1976 NASA’s prototype space shuttle was to have been named Constitution, but fans of the Star Trek TV show mounted a write-in campaign that led to it being named Enterprise. Here the show’s cast (minus William Shatner) poses with the test craft. NASA