The world was watching.
An Aug. 5, 1964 report from the United States Information Agency compiled news accounts from across the globe and concluded "there appeared to be little doubt that this new achievement materially improved the prospects for the eventual landing of a man on the moon.
"The success of Ranger 7 drew heavy newsplay and editorial superlatives in the free world press and radio. Initial reported comment, generally extensive, treated the event as a major scientific advance, opening a 'new era' in space explorations."
The report gathered headlines from around the world: "A stunning success, a fantastic exploit," Le Matin of Antwerp. "A new revolution in the field of astronomical observation," Hamburg's Die Welt. "A triumph of the highest importance" Britain's Guardian. "A red-letter day in the history of lunar research and a preparation for even more remarkable events," Stockholm's Svenska Dagbladet. The pro-Gaullist Paris-Presse asserted categorically that the U.S. had won the first round of the "battle for the moon."
President Johnson's reference to Ranger 7 as a "weapon of peace" was widely quoted. Rome's Il Messaggero wrote that "Ranger 7 should be hailed as a symbol of liberty, for if the goal of mankind is the universe, the Earth must seek its peace in freedom."
While many news outlets—with a range of political leanings—reported Ranger 7's achievement in the context of the space race, several European papers issued suggestions for U.S.-Soviet collaboration in space exploration.
Latin American outlets reported the news with a poetic slant. Santiago's conservative El Diario Illustrado: "It now seems that Ranger 7 is going to break the seals on the enigma of the moon." El Siglo of Buenos Aires: "The moon no longer has any secrets." Meanwhile, in Cuba, the only known acknowledgement of Ranger 7 came from a Havana television commentator who said "if it is true that it transmitted 4,000 photographs, among them will be one of the Soviet flag, which has been on the moon for years, waiting for the Yankees."
Soviet media called it a "new national achievement" for the United States and noted that Soviet scientists and engineers had send messages of congratulations to their American colleagues.
Before the July 31 national press conference, Kuiper briefed a joint meeting of the House and Senate science and aeronautical committees. He also conducted an Aug. 6 White House briefing before an audience that included Chief Justice Earl Warren, NASA administrators and cabinet officials from Defense, State, Treasury and Interior.
The University of Arizona issued its own proud press release:
"The appearance by Kuiper is evidence of the UA's steadily growing role as a major research center. This role is not new, although the Ranger 7 flight and Kuiper's position as principal experimenter responsible for interpreting the history-making lunar photographs have highlighted the UA's scientific stature in dramatic fashion since last Friday," trumpeted UA officials on Aug. 5, 1964.
The primary scientific questions sought by the Ranger mission concerned the evolution of the moon (which remained an unsettled debate until the Apollo missions returned lunar samples) and the make up of the surface. Many scientists—including the prominent Cornell astronomer Thomas Gold, who designed the stereo camera used on Apollo 11—held the theory that the moon was coated in a deep layer of dust that would swallow a spacecraft without a trace.
Using the Ranger photographs, it was Kuiper himself who first calculated the "bearing strength" of the moon's surface, settling the debate with firm proof that a landing was possible.
Retired UA geologist Spencer Titley, who trained NASA astronauts on the geology of the moon, recalls seeing the first Ranger 7 pictures in a department meeting.
"That was the first shot from Earth to the moon to see what was there. It was exciting, but I don't remember being excited by it," says Titley, adding that the immediacy of the work that was enabled by the photographs weighed more on his mind.
The pictures themselves weren't terribly exciting, Titley says, but the scientists' newly proven ability at obtaining such photographs was monumental. "That really opened the door, the fact that we could get there and send pictures back," he says.
One of the last jobs Titley did for the United States Geological Survey was working on a map from Ranger 7 images. But even before the Ranger mission's first success, UA astronomers and geologists were hosting astronauts, giving them a crash course in what they might encounter on the moon.
"'Adventures' On The Moon Begin In Viewing Room At Kitt Peak" reported the Tucson Daily Citizen on May 21, 1964. The article described what six astronauts—including Alan Shepard, the first American in space, and three others who had already taken orbital flights in Mercury capsules—were learning about the lunar terrain from Titley. Six more astronauts were at Kitt Peak the following night.
The 50th anniversary of Ranger 7's success is generating a new spotlight on the mission.
"It's unheralded, but it's coming back to attention," says Timothy Swindle, the current director of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.
What Kuiper and Ranger 7 really did, Swindle says, was to transform the moon from realm of science fiction into a tangible reality.
Renowned space artist Chesley Bonestell had great sway over the public imagination in the 1950s and early 1960s. Though he read scientific literature, Bonestell's work was imaginative and futuristic. His moon pictures—most prominently in the 1950 film Destination Moon—were full of spiky rocks and rough, jagged mountain peaks.
"Nobody knew what the surface was like until Ranger got there. But when it did, it wasn't Chesley's moon anymore. We finally had a close up," Swindle says. "The moon turned into a place we'd been. In the public eye, it was really at Ranger 7 when the moon became a place."
(Sources: Reporting for this story included interviews, as well as material from the University of Arizona Libraries Special Collections, Lunar and Planetary Laboratory history compiled by Melissa L. Lamberton, and The University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory: Its Founding and Early Years, by Ewan A. Whitaker, published in 1986 by the University of Arizona Press.)