Digital imaging was developed in the mid-1960s to explore the surface of the Earth’s moon. Conventional camera equipment mounted in the unmanned Ranger spacecraft returned distorted, lopsided images from the moon. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer Dr. Robert Nathan began developing the first operational digital image processing software to address this problem. Digital Imaging – a process that turns analog signals into digital signals which are, in turn, fed into a computer for enhancement – returned sharp, accurate images of the lunar surface.
This began a steady stream of advances in digital image processing, spurred by the advent of ever-more sophisticated spacecraft transmitting immense volumes of image data from distances farther and farther from Earth. In the years following, JPL’s Drs. Robert Nathan, Robert Selzer, and Kenneth Castleman pioneered use of digital processing techniques to enhance electron microscope, x-ray, and light microscope images. This work sparked experimental medical applications by other organizations and emergence of a growing industry providing image processing systems for health care. Among medical applications derived from this technology are computed tomography (CAT) scanning, diagnostic radiography, brain or cardiac angiography, sonar body imaging, surgery monitoring, and nuclear magnetic resonance. Many successful companies and products today are direct offspring of digital imaging technology. The medical applications and refinements continue to bring significant new diagnostic resources to health professionals and the general public they serve.