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Apollo Remastered

Jul 17, 2009
By Greg Emerson Bocquet

Apollo 11 moon landingYou would think that the brilliant minds behind man’s first visit to the moon would be meticulous in their attention to detail, but new footage of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s famous moonwalk proves that even the best and brightest can let some things fall through the cracks.

In this case what fell through the cracks was perhaps the most important video record in history: the original moon landing tapes. Recorded along with the mission data stream onto 14-inch reels, the footage is believed to have found its way into a massive archive, much of which was overwritten in the 1970s and ’80s when NASA encountered a shortage of these special format tapes.

Mankind’s giant leap, taped over by random bits of satellite data.

Granted, the fact that mission control was able to transmit live television from the surface of the moon to homes around the world, while orchestrating the landing itself, is a remarkable feat. In 1969 technology, this meant a circuitous process of relays and compressions resulting in the grainy, blurry images that people have been looking at for years.

First, images from the original lunar camera (recorded in slow-scan television) were beamed up to the orbiting Apollo command module, which sent the raw signals to the nearest tracking station on Earth at the time (11 pm on July 20, 1969), located at the Parkes Observatory in Australia. Along with two other sites that received poorer-quality signals, the observatory recorded the transmission onto the archival reels before they were sent to Sydney, where they were heavily compressed in order to be broadcast live. The broadcast-quality signal was then transmitted to the Intelsat III satellite for distribution to the US and beyond. Among the many screens watching the feed was the large television monitor at mission control in Houston, where a 16-mm film camera was pointed at the images to record them for the NASA archives.

While this may have been good enough for a temporary record of the event, it was never meant to be an archival copy. Somehow, whoever was responsible for getting the original reels shipped over from Australia for preservation and storage dropped the ball. Big time.

Fast-forward to today, and NASA has basically given up the search for the originals. While the amount of tapes in storage suggests that they might exist, somewhere, there appears to be no definite plan to pore through the hours and hours of material. Instead, the agency enlisted Lowry Digital, a film-restoration company in Burbank, Calif. to remove as much of the fuzz, blur, static and noise as possible.

The result, while noticeably improved, falls short of what many believe was captured on the original reels.

In releasing the restored, high-definition footage, NASA has done what it can to dispel the idea that the whole thing was staged, by being as open and transparent about the process as possible. Conspiracy theorists have questioned the authenticity of the moon landing for 40 years now, and the agency’s partnership with Hollywood in restoring the footage is likely only to invite new suspicions. A recent study found that more than 25 percent of people worldwide think that the moon landing never happened, up considerably from the six percent who told Gallup 10 years ago that they thought the whole thing was a hoax.

Whether or not the new footage convinces the skeptics, it is an important improvement, 40 years overdue. And whether or not it satisfies the die-hard space enthusiasts that were hoping for crystal clear, full-color images doesn’t matter either. The moon landing is as much about the accomplishment as it is about the historical context in which it occurred.

When Kennedy made that famous speech in April of 1962, it was a giant leap of faith that only those witnessing it at the time can truly appreciate. In a way the static and blur captures the uncertainty and audacity of the president’s proclamation, leaving us with an imperfect record that perhaps better mirrors the collective human memory of mankind’s greatest achievement.

 




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For those of us watching TV at that moment, the quality of the transmission was and is irrelevant. One knows when one is witnessing a miracle. Even perfect quality images would not prevent the fear and doubt created by the pace to technological change. It has always been so.

Ray Hart
Dec 6, 2009

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