When astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon 40 years ago this Monday (that’s Buzz Aldrin pictured above), I was nine years old and absolutely transfixed by the entire mission. I had several plastic Revell models of the various spacecraft — the full Saturn V, the command module, and of course the lunar module. I followed along with Walter Cronkite, and more frequently with Jules Bergman, because my dad watched Howard K. Smith‘s more conservative ABC Evening News every night.
Apollo 11 moon landing
I remember running out to the street in front of our house on the night of July 20, 1969, to look up at the moon and see if I could detect anything. I could not. Then, I dashed back into the house to continue staring at our TV, trying to make out what was going on.
The image was black and white, and it was fuzzy. There was too much contrast. A black, horizontal bar floated across it. When Neil Armstrong took that first step off the LEM, I was watching, but didn’t quite catch it. Thank goodness for replays.
Apollo 11 video on DVD
Thank goodness also for DVDs. Back in 2003, a company called Spacecraft Films released a 3-DVD set called Apollo 11: Men on the Moon, containing the most complete collection of Apollo 11 footage and video you can buy.
Missing Apollo 11 tapes were much better quality
Listening to NPR three years ago (“Search Is on for Original Apollo 11 Footage“), I learned why the picture was so poor. It seems that the lunar camera sent its video in a format incompatible with (but presumably better than) broadcast TV:
Here’s how it worked: The lunar camera was sending images to three tracking stations: Goldstone in California, and Honeysuckle Creek and Parkes in Australia. At these stations, the original footage could be displayed on a monitor.
To convert the originals, engineers essentially took a commercial television camera and aimed it at the monitor. The resulting image is what was sent to Houston, and on to the world.
So what the world watched was a camera shot of a video monitor. That explains the quality.
Lost Apollo 11 tapes were thought to be erased
What happened to the original, higher-quality tapes? They were thought to be erased and taped over, just as you might record over your wedding video to catch the latest installment of Dancing with the Stars. This is what NPR’s Morning Edition reported in their first-man-on-the-moon followup (“Houston, We Erased The Apollo 11 Tapes“):
It turns out that new satellites had gone up and were producing a lot of data that needed to be recorded. “These satellites were suddenly using tapes seven days a week, 24 hours a day,” says [lunar camera designer Stan] Lebar.
And the agency was experiencing a critical shortage of magnetic tapes. So NASA started erasing old ones and reusing them.
As assorted hippies were heard to say at Woodstock in August of 1969, “Bummer.”
It may be some consolation to know that NASA has made a selection of “Apollo 11 Partial Restoration HD Videos” available online. These use modern digital techniques to enhance what footage of man’s greatest technological accomplishment still exists.
Update, July 2019:
NASA intern bought moonwalk videos for $218
According to Sotheby’s, a NASA intern named Gary George working at Johnson Space Center in Houston bought 65 boxes of random videotapes for $217.77 at a 1973 government surplus auction, planning to resell them to local TV stations. George’s father, however, noticed tapes marked “APOLLO 11 EVA | July 20, 1969 REEL 1 [–3],” so George held onto them.
The Apollo 11 tapes were auctioned on July 20, 2019, the 50th anniversary of the first moonwalk, to an undisclosed bidder for 1.82 million dollars.
Moon landing at NASM
If you ever have the chance, do pay a visit to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum (NASM) in Washington, D.C.
There I was able to stand inside an alternate of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module, watching the moon landing video through the windows and listening to the audio recording of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin narrowly coordinating speed and altitude with emptying fuel and surface terrain. Looking around at the interior of the lander and its controls and instrumentation, I got the overwhelming sense that these guys landed on the moon in a highly customized tin can, outfitted with miscellaneous gizmos from Radio Shack and black electrical tape. Man, that took guts.
Saturn V model rocket
One of these days, I really want to once again own the 46-inch tall, 1/96 scale Apollo Saturn V Revell model I had as a kid. Then I could follow the online Saturn V Clinic and modify its tubing, corrugated “stringer” wraps, and decals.
Okay, it’s not at the top of my bucket list, but it’s on there.