The Inside Story On Getting Live TV From Space In 1969 And Beyond
Interview by ANN Space Analyst Wes Olezsewski
Four and one half decades ago, July 20th, 1969 Apollo 11 landed on the lunar surface. About five hours after the landing the world watched in fascination as Neil Armstrong first stepped upon the Moon. Those of us who were lucky enough to be around on that historic day watched ghostly black and white TV images from the Moon. Later we pondered exactly how that was done.
Recently an author who is an expert in the technology that allowed spaceflight to come into our living rooms has had two books published that explain exactly how all of that took place. Dwight Steven-Boniecki is the author of “Live TV From the Moon” and “Live TV From Orbit” and his work explains the history and the process in terms that everyone can understand. These two volumes are as fascinating to read as the TV from space was to watch. Today the Aero-News Network is pleased to be able to talk to Dwight about his work:
ANN: Dwight, what was it that motivated you to write about TV from the Moon and from Orbit?
Dwight: I was curious as to why the lunar TV footage had the tell-tale “confetti” color streaks to it. I soon found out that such information was not readily available, so I set about collecting as much of it as I could. Before long I had amassed a large amount of documentation and I also had the chance to talk with several key people involved with the camera development like Stan Lebar from Westinghouse and Sam Russell from RCA. They helped fill in the parts of the story that the documentation didn’t cover. A friend suggested I write a magazine article. That article ended up being two books.
ANN: This summer marks the 45 anniversary of Apollo 11. Anyone who saw the event on TV remembers the ghostly black and white images. Can you briefly explain why those images appeared as they did?
Dwight: Several factors contributed to the resultant image quality. The TV picture was 320 scan lines, 10 frames per second, rather than the normal 525 lines, 30 frames per second. The image resolution was almost halved. The first step was received by the Honeysuckle Creek tracking station. Due to its smaller antenna, the image quality suffered. You can see the difference once the switch is made to the larger 64 meter Parks antenna. The 320 line image was scan converted to 525 NTSC via an optical converter. Because this used a system of shooting a high resolution monitor, the image quality was further reduced. Additionally, the first seconds were received by Goldstone tracking station. The scan converter operator panicked upon seeing the inverted image and over-corrected the signal.
ANN: Apollo 11 had a color TV camera aboard the Command Module, why was there only a black and white slow-scan on the Lunar Module for the lunar EVA?
Dwight: A color camera was already flying on Apollo 10, however, the unit had not been tested for lunar EVA. NASA, being well aware of the historical importance of televising the first step, opted for the surface conditions-tested Westinghouse monochrome camera.
ANN: I’ve heard a rumor that all of the original tapes of the Apollo 11 EVA were lost, is that true or false and what was the process for archiving that footage?
Dwight: What has gone missing, presumed erased and re-used for later space missions, were the 1 inch telemetry tapes. All of the transmitted spacecraft data was contained in the recorded signal part of that was the TV signal. The feed that the world saw in 1969 was scan converted, and it was this which was archived. The 2009 restoration used the best quality scan converted tapes and Lowry Digital worked their magic to have the footage look as good as possible.
ANN: Originally the astronaut office fought against having any TV cameras aboard Apollo flights. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Dwight: There were two sides within NASA regarding TV. Those against the TV cameras argued it was unnecessary for mission success and would distract the astronauts from more important duties during the mission. Those in favor of the camera argued that the taxpayer had a right to see the missions as they happened. They also pointed out the historical importance of televising the moonwalks. In the end, pressure from the TV industry and Washington saw the inclusion of television on the Apollo missions. In fact, all American spaceflights since Apollo 7 have carried TV cameras. Today the idea of not having TV on a spaceflight seems unfathomable!
ANN: What were the earliest tests of TV from orbit?
Dwight: The Mercury flight of Faith 7 carried the first slow-scan TV camera. It was bulky and clumsy to use. Gemini had no TV at all and the first real-time TV was performed on Apollo 7.
ANN: On later lunar EVAs the images were in color and were of high quality. How did that come to be?
Dwight: Tom Stafford pushed hard to get color TV on his Apollo 10 flight. At the same time Westinghouse had started tests into the sequential color system. When Stafford heard about this he managed to get color TV on Apollo about two years earlier than planned. Apollo 12 carried the first lunar surface color camera, as did each following lunar mission. The technology improved by the time the RCA rover TV camera was used. Also, a young John Lowry had approached NASA with a proposal to apply real-time noise reduction to the incoming signal on Apollos 16 and 17. This dramatically improved the image quality.
ANN: Dwight, in reading both of your books I found that you explain not only how the early spaceflight TV worked, but also how it functioned in later programs such as Skylab, ASTP and the Space Shuttle. Your work is an outstanding look into the history of what allowed us here on earth to see the history as it happened. Thank you for taking the time today to chat with us here at the Aero-News Network.
Dwight: Thank you! I’ll let you in a little secret - my favorite space TV comes from the Skylab missions. I find the experiments that they telecast to be absolutely astounding. It is a shame that they are not regularly shown in school physics classes. I have included some TV from each of the 3 missions on the DVD which comes with “Live TV From Orbit.” You can also watch some highlights from ASTP on there as well.