FIRST TV IMAGE OF MARS
Interplanetary color by numbers
For the longest time I had seen this framed image entitled “The First TV Image of Mars” in an out of the way place at JPL. I loved taking people there showing them this low res image and how it had been made by coloring numbers that were stapled to a wall. When I got to curate an exhibition about data and art, I had to have this in it, but in the process of curating the show I was able to interview Richard “Dick” Grumm, who is the one who made the image (his initials “RLG” can be seen in the lower right hand corner), and I learned the story was even more interesting. Here is what I found out:
This image represents the first view of another planet from a vantage point in space. It was taken on July 15th, 1965, when the space probe Mariner 4 flew by only 6,118 miles from the surface of Mars. Before this image the most sophisticated, high res image of Mars was this image by Percival Lowell from the late 1800's (see below). The rectangles represent the location of the 22 images that were taken. The orange rectangle is this image. They are skewed because the camera is pointed from space at the ground at an angle, not straight down.
After the failure of Mariner 3 (whose camera shroud had jammed), NASA scientists and engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory anxiously awaited the signals from Mariner 4's cameras during the final approach to Mars. There had been some anomalous errors pointing towards the tape recorder (seen below), and they had a right to be nervous as the tape recorder on Mariner 4 was a spare not originally intended for use, but because of the previous failure on Mariner 3, it was used. So Mr. Grumm, who oversaw the tape recorder, and his crew decided to prove if it was working one way or the other.
After the flyby of the planet it would take several hours for computers to process a real image. So while they were waiting, the engineers thought of different ways of taking the 1’s and 0’s from the actual data and create an image. After a few variations, it seemed most efficient to print out the digits and color over them based upon how bright each pixel was. So Mr. Grumm went to a local art store and asked for a set of chalk with different shades of gray. The art store replied that they “did not sell chalk” (as that was apparently too low for them, only convenience stores sold “chalk”), but they did have colored pastels. Richard did not want to spend a lot of time arguing with them, so he bought the pastels (actual pastels seen below), had the 1’s and 0’s printed out on ticker tape about 3in wide, and his team colored them by their brightness level (color key seen below).
Though he used a brown/red color scheme, the thought that Mars was red did not enter his mind. He really was looking for the colors that best represented a grey scale, since that was what they were going to get anway. It is uncanny how close his color scheme is to the actual colors of Mars. It's as if they came right out of current images of the planet. I’ve seen some of the other color schemes he tried and it could have been green or purple!
In another side story that makes this an even more interesting story, while he and his team were coloring the image, the JPL PR folks were getting nervous that the news media would see this thing and not the “actual” pretty image. They told them to quit, but Grumm argued that this was being done to confirm whether their instrument was working or not. So they allowed him to continue if he did it behind a movable partition wall with armed guards around them! Eventually the media found out about it and got so excited the PR people couldn’t keep them out. So it became the first close-up image of mars to be seen on tv.
The image is actually of the limb, or edge, of the planet. The dark brown at the bottom is space, the light area is the planet, and the orange in between are clouds above the surface. And even though it seems that it is in HD, its so wide because each time they laid down a 3in strip of paper, it got a little longer. So here I registered the images and horizontally compressed the drawing to fit the actaul processed image.
When they finally finished the piece they literally took a saw to the movable wall and cut it out, framed it, and gave it to the William Pickering, the JPL director at the time.