On July 14, 1965, Mariner 4 sent home the very first television pictures of Mars during its historic flyby. But instead of waiting for time-consuming image processing, impatient scientists created this awesome colour-by-numbers wall chart from the raw data.

Top image: Close-up view of hand-coloured number tapes. Credit: NASA/JPL/Dan Goods

Launched on November 28, 1964, the Mariner 4 probe arrived at Mars later that summer. Its closest approach was just 9,846 kilometers from the planet at 6:01 P.M PDT on July 15, 1965.

Mariner 4's on-board tape recorder stored data to transmit to Earth. Image credit: NASA/JPL


With an on-board imaging system, cosmic dust detector, cosmic-ray telescope, ionization chamber, magnetometer, trapped radiation detector, solar plasma probe, and occultation experiment, it had a hefty payload for the first up-close examination of the red planet. Mariner 4 either sent data directly to Earth as soon as it was acquired, or else stored it on an onboard tape recorder. The tape recorder could store up to 5.24 million bits of data for later transmission. All data was sent twice to make sure we didn't miss anything.

Colour-by-numbers chart for the Mariner 4 mission to Mars. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Dan Goods


Mariner 4 was the first successful mission to Mars, and the first time NASA acquired up-close photos of another planet. This was, understandably, a very exciting event and generated some very real impatience among the science team.

The Mariner 4 digital image data was converted by a real-time data translator into numbers that printed out on strips of data. Instead of waiting for the entire image processing procedure to create the official photograph, the employees in the telecommunications group at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory mounted the strips in this display panel and hand-coloured the numbers to create a quick and dirty visualization.


Colour key for the hand-processed Mariner 4 data. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Dan Goods

Once the mosaic was complete, the Telecommunications System employees framed the completed image and presented it to their director, William H. Pickering.

The mosaic is of the very first up-close photograph taken of Mars, but Mariner 4 wasn't done with just it. It took 22 images, sending home 5.2 million bits of data and finding a cold, battered, barren world with a thin atmosphere and a weak radiation belt.


The first up-close image from Mars acquired at 5:18:33 P.M. PDT on July 14, 1965, properly processed and released by the following day. Image credit: NASA/JPL

The colour-by-numbers mosaic is not the only hilariously awesome part of the Mariner 4 mission. Here's the base map used to plan the mission, a 1962 creation by the United States Airforce. Notice anything usual?


Base map of Mars for planning the Mariner 4 mission includes canals. Image credit: NASA

Canals. The base map for the Mariner 4 mission to Mars includes carefully drafted canals, inspired from 1800s observations through fuzzy telescopes. Despite being discredited by many astronomers even before the arrival of the probe, at least one astronomer still believed in the canals and was influential enough to impact the design of air force maps, so the Mariner 4 mission was planned on a map with canals.


After completing its mission at Mars, Mariner 4 continued on in a wide loop to the far side of the sun. NASA maintained contact until October 1965, then abandoned it until October 1967 when they reactivated it to perform attitude control tests in support of the Mariner 5 mission to Venus. Their last contact with the spacecraft was on December 21, 1967.

Orthographic shaded relief map made from the first two photographs captured by Mariner 4. Image credit: NASA/JPL


By the time Mariner 9 rolled into orbit in 1972, it sent home far too much data for such a simple organization scheme. Instead, the project leaned on the careful scissor skills of its employees to create vast hand-assembled mosaics of Mars.

Read more about Mariner 4.