Science and Technology

NASA : How TV Was Brought to the Moon


How NASA was able to bring extraordinary shootings, and films from the first man-walk on the moon through live broadcast worldwide

The United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket with NASA’s Orion spacecraft mounted atop, lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 37 at at 7:05 a.m. EST, Friday, Dec. 5, 2014, in Florida. The Orion spacecraft will orbit Earth twice, reaching an altitude of approximately 3,600 miles above Earth before landing in the Pacific Ocean. No one is aboard Orion for this flight test, but the spacecraft is designed to allow us to journey to destinations never before visited by humans, including an asteroid and Mars. Photo credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

The imagination and creativeness of NASA to transmit directly from the moon, not just photos with Hasselblad cameras and shootings on 16mm film with video broadcast directly from the moon to document those extraordinary missions that brought the man to the moon, was extraordinary and history-making.

People that had the opportunity then to experience those exceptional, intense, and exciting moments of the Apollo mission years and, especially, of the Apollo 11 mission, in those crucial moments of the history of humankind, it was in front of a television!

The “small step” made by Neil Armstrong, the culmination of a mission begun only a few days before, but the result of a decade of intense efforts and great work, was broadcast live on television throughout the world. Thus, everyone could observe the astronaut stunned as they descended the ladder of the lunar module Eagle and, finally, set foot on the dusty surface of the Moon. They are images that are now carved into history, indelible, unforgettable, and unbelievable. Nevertheless, looking at it with a critical eye, those images are not so beautiful and bright. However, we are talking about the end of the 1960s, and the transmission originated on a celestial body located over 380,000 kilometers away from the face of the Earth.

Not only that, the temperature and lighting conditions, the availability of power and the restrictions on weight imposed by the mission, have necessarily made everything more complicated, also limiting the technology already available at the time. However, how was it possible to make a television broadcast – also live – from the Moon? It might seem a somewhat regular thing to be able to see today on television that first step moved by the human being on a world different from the Earth: TV reaches everywhere and there is no longer even too much case. Even at the time of Apollo 11, television had already reached quite a widespread diffusion, but one directed from the Moon? I have never heard of it!

As early as 1962, people began to think about the specifics of cameras to fly with the Apollo missions, but for a long time NASA discussed whether it was essential to transmit images from the missions, thinking about the weight and considering all the logistical difficulties related to transport and the setting up of cameras capable of resuming and transmitting the company. Today we could do it by merely using our smartphone, and even with very high-resolution images, but in the 1960s, the cameras usually used in television studios were massive, cumbersome, and above all energy consumer!

All three of these characteristics were incompatible with a mission like that of Apollo 11. What to do then? Discard the idea? Certainly not!

Being able to observe events in real-time, in their performance, up there, on the Moon, was not only of great help and value for NASA itself, but almost due to the general public of the whole world and, above all, of the American people who had the company financed and there was a high unemployment rate, the American citizens had little sympathy towards the institutions, between the cold war with the Soviet Union and the failure on all fronts of the war in Vietnam. Many Americans, especially young people, and minority groups felt that their hope died after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

 Nowadays, NASA has become a teacher in transforming celestial phenomena and events linked to its work into real media shows, we know well how the fate of space missions also passes by public opinion and its influence on policy choices : in ’69 this work of media marketing was in its infancy, but its value was already perceived.

The Apollo Lunar Television Camera was mounted a black and white version, as it on the side of the lunar module, to the left of the descent lineup, and which broadcast,  the first-time man moonwalks live worldwide. NASA Credits

However, which camera could have been realistically transported and operated on the moon? A tiny camera obviously (concerning the size of the time was meant), of a couple of kilos or less, capable of operating with a few watts of power and sensitive enough to shoot in low light conditions. Not to mention, finally, that such a contraption would have to withstand temperature changes of over 200 ° C.

No cameras available then even came close to the specific ones. But, just like the technological miracles performed by engineers engaged in the construction of the Apollo Program’s space vehicles, a couple of equally extreme and almost miraculous answers arrived from the laboratories of the technological giants Westinghouse Electric Corporation and RCA Corporation, which eventually produced the cameras used in the various Apollo missions (starting from Apollo 7), not only for the resumption of the historic first step but also those then used inside the shuttles and by the astronauts that descended on the Moon.

The original signal, transmitted directly from the lunar Eagle module to the large NASA antennas in Goldstone (California, USA), Canberra (Australia) and also picked up by the large Parkes radio telescope (Australia) with its impressive 64-meter antenna, was much more precise and bright than the one finally arrived in the homes of viewers around the world. However, indeed, one could not complain and, undoubtedly, the astonishment and emotion were so intense as to convince even the most critical of viewers to gloss over the quality of the images that, even if dark and undefined, could only enchant literally and leave you amazed.

A particular note is to be pointed out regarding the fact that the descent on the Moon was carried out in black and white. The cameras and the color TV were already widespread at the time (although not yet in Italy) and, despite the stringent constraints imposed by space missions, it had already been possible to make color shots on board the Apollo command module starting from the Apollo 10 mission. However, for that historic night, the Apollo 11 lunar module was equipped with a black and white camera.

The reasons were primarily related to the lower sensitivity of color cameras and their higher energy consumption. Conservatively, they opted for a traditional and more straightforward black and white camera, because it would have been more effective in recording the steps of Armstrong and Aldrin on the Moon, in the conditions of high contrast between the areas in shadow and the areas in light, and to  guarantee a better signal/noise ratio. Furthermore, they did well, and today we can all see how the ladder of descent from the module was in shadow and how dazzling the surfaces illuminated by sunlight are instead. A black and white transmission would also have significantly facilitated the transmission of the television signal to Earth and transmitted live to all TVs in the world.

Despite all its flaws and the cumbersome and arranged solutions, therefore, even the live television broadcast from the surface of our natural satellite was a record-breaking first time, which required research and new technological solutions, thus fully becoming one of the great successes achieved following the conquest of the Moon.

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