The Lunar Orbiter program was one of the most successful mission series ever flown. Designed to obtain high-resolution pictures to certify the safety of Apollo landing sites, the first three missions were so successful that the last two, Orbiters 4 and 5, were “released” for scientific mapping of the Moon. Lunar Orbiter 4 mapped the entire near side of the Moon at an average resolution of about 100 meters per line pair. Lunar Orbiter 5 filled in some gaps in Apollo site certification, but mostly obtained detailed, high-resolution images of a variety of scientific targets around the Moon. After 30 years, the Lunar Orbiter photographs remain the principal reference set of images for the scientific study of surface landforms on the Moon.
In the late 1960s, David Bowker and Kenrick Hughes of NASA's Langley Research Center, where the project was run, assembled the best Lunar Orbiter images into an atlas covering both near and far sides of the Moon. This 675-plate photographic atlas was published by the U.S. Government Printing Office as NASA Special Publication 206 in 1971 and became an essential reference work to anyone interested in lunar science. Any lunar feature could be accessed and examined merely by thumbing through this book. “Bowker and Hughes,” as its aficionados referred to it, became the standard reference book for a generation of lunar geologists and mappers.
Publication by NASA (i.e., subsidized by the federal government) ensured that the book would have wide distribution and would be relatively inexpensive. At one point, the Lunar and Planetary Institute had so many surplus copies of the atlas that they were given away at the annual Lunar Science Conferences of the 1970s. Some of us in those days, attending as graduate students, packed away multiple copies of this priceless treasure! However, since the depletion of LPI's stock of surplus atlases, the book has been out-of-print and difficult to find. I recently searched the Internet for a used copy and found one. Asking price: $400!!
I am thrilled and excited that the classic “Bowker and Hughes” is now once again widely available, this time in the even more convenient CD-ROM format. Now a new generation of lunar students and friends can make acquaintance with the distant cratered landscapes some of us love so well. Jeff and the technical crew at the LPI have done both the planetary science community and the small but enthusiastic group of lunar amateurs a great service by once again making this important reference book widely available at an affordable price. Although we've had other missions to the Moon, this collection of Lunar Orbiter photographs has never been surpassed in terms of sheer photographic quality. And now, in a cleaned-up digital form, they look better than ever.