Apollo 11 Original Footage Revealed

NFSA’s archive footage of the July 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing demonstrates humanity at its finest, from cars driving along highways to picnic rugs in Florida’s Merritt Island where sideburns and Instamatic cameras fill the screen in eagerness and expectation.

But Miller appears to have hastened the editing of these tapes; his goal was likely to fit as many events from the mission into its limited span, framing them superficially using familiar dramatic terms.

1. The Launch

The launch of Apollo 11 is a moment etched in the memories of millions who tuned their television sets to watch Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin take their first steps on the Moon. This short news segment combines archival footage with interviews with the astronauts to provide a clear, concise reminder of what was achieved on that historic day in 1969.

On July 16 1969, the massive Saturn V rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral carrying astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins on their mission to the Moon. The televised mission was the culmination of years of hard work and intense training by the astronauts, who were tasked with a mission that seemed impossible to achieve just a few months earlier.

LIFE photographer Vernon Merritt captured the moment of the launch in a series of iconic images, including one that shows the astronauts preparing for the mission by pulling on their spacesuits. The pure white of the suits reflects an otherworldly brightness that lends a sense of the fantastic to the moment. This pristine luminosity, more than any gesture or expression, illustrates the colossal undertaking at hand.

After a two-and-a-half hour chekout period, the rocket reached orbit and began deploying the lunar module that would carry Armstrong and Aldrin to the Moon. During the two-hour lunar surface mission, the astronauts took photographs and collected piles of moon rocks and soil specimens while deploying scientific experiments, including a seismograph for measuring “moonquakes” and a laser reflector to measure the precise distance between Earth and the Moon. After a brief rest, they fired their service module’s engines to leave the lunar surface and rendezvous with Collins in the command module in lunar orbit.

Several NASA sites transmitted the astronauts’ pictures back to Mission Control in Houston, including the Goldstone and Honeysuckle Creek tracking stations. The pictures were uplinked to satellites and downlinked to TV receiving centres worldwide, including the NBC network for a world broadcast. This Capital TV news segment uses archival footage from the latter to highlight the role this important tracking station played in the success of the mission.

2. The Crawler-Transporter

The behemoth that carried the Saturn V rocket and its launch tower to the beachside launch pads at Kennedy Space Center is one of the most fascinating machines ever created. The Crawler-Transporter, or CT, was both brawn and brains, with elaborate systems that kept its loads perfectly level over the four-mile journey from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the launch pads.

The two CTs were built in Ohio by Marion Power Shovel Company, then shipped to Florida for use at KSC. Until the CTs, NASA had built rockets right on the pad—a strategy that worked fine in dry New Mexico, but in Florida, where hurricane-strength winds frequently whipped the site, it was not an option. To solve the problem, boffins built the massive crawlers.

At the time they were delivered, the CTs were the largest self-propelled tracked vehicles on Earth. They still are, although their days of hauling rockets to the launch pads may be numbered. The two remaining units will be outfitted with a series of upgrades designed to keep them viable for at least another decade: 16 higher-capacity jacking cylinders, replacement of belt pin lubrication systems, resurfacing of the driver cabs, and modernization of electrical control systems.

The CTs were used in a different way for Apollo 11, though. For the live TV broadcasts, they would be parked in front of the Mobile Launch Platform (MLP), a huge structure that the astronauts entered through Side 3 of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). The MLP provided protection from the elements as the rocket was loaded onto it and assembled. Then the MLP and the rocket would be moved by CT to the launch pad, a trip that lasted less than an hour.

That short ride would also provide a spectacular backdrop for the launch. As the astronauts entered the MLP, a camera mounted on the CT recorded their faces. The video was later converted to a standard format for television and sent back to Houston, where it was uplinked to satellite and downlinked to television networks around the country. For hundreds of millions of viewers, it was the first time they saw an image of a human being walking on another planet.

3. The Moon Landing

A snazzy new restoration of video footage from the lunar surface shows the first steps of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in 1969. Watch the restored film here.

The original Apollo 11 landing on July 20, 1969, was broadcast live worldwide and is one of the most watched events in history. But it was not without its challenges, both on the ground and in space. For instance, the special lunar camera recorded in an odd format that was incompatible with the standard for broadcast TV. And the long, complex signal transmission path to Earth involved many conversions and retransmissions that degraded image quality.

As a result, the pictures of Armstrong and Aldrin stepping off the LM and onto the Moon’s surface were dark and murky on TV. Even with all these factors, millions of people were captivated by what they saw.

But what they saw wasn’t the full story. As NPR reported in 2006, engineers on the ground did preserve some of the video transmitted by the lunar camera on 2-inch quad tapes. A mechanical engineer bought the tapes at a government surplus auction in 1976 for a couple hundred dollars, and NASA has since released them online in high-resolution video.

In fact, the full-resolution version looks much better than the grainy televised images of the landing that were broadcast to homes in July of 1969. And the difference is clear to anyone who views the new video with its high-definition graphics and a better understanding of how the signals were processed on both ends of the transmission chain.

Another aspect of the restored film is that it offers a much more complete picture of how the astronauts managed to safely land their craft. The film includes a few seconds of video that Armstrong and Aldrin took with the LM camera after they exited the lander to start their explorations on the lunar surface.

The astronauts then returned to their command module, Columbia, in lunar orbit to rejoin Michael Collins, who had remained in the CM while Armstrong and Aldrin set foot on the Moon’s surface. After a day and a half on the Moon, they fired their LM’s ascent stage and blasted off into lunar orbit.

4. The Return

Once they separated the command module from the lunar module, the astronauts began their return trip back to Earth. This was the most dramatic moment in the mission, a nail-biting two-and-a-half minute burn that would put the crew in a reentry trajectory for home. Mission control held their breath until they saw the spacecraft emerging from behind the moon and re-acquired the signal conveying their telemetry data. It had worked.

Armstrong stepped out of the lunar module, into the vacuum of space. A solitary figure, his silhouette framed against the blackness of space and the glowing blue-white glow of the lunar surface. Millions of viewers watched from their homes. The moment was awe-inspiring, a moment of human accomplishment. But that moment didn’t last long. Armstrong immediately radioed to Mission Control in Houston a famous message, “The Eagle has landed.”

After the landing, the astronauts spent a few days in quarantine while scientists checked that they didn’t bring any moon bugs back with them. This is another interesting part of the documentary, as it gives a sense of what it was like for the astronauts to wait in quarantine, trying to entertain themselves with board games and cards while keeping an eye on their monitors to see if they could receive a good downlink signal from the ground stations at Goldstone and Parkes in California, or from Parkes and Honeysuckle Creek in Australia.

This is also where the movie falls short of being a true original footage documentary. Miller hardly uses any of the techniques that are standard in this genre to highlight or emphasise the images, such as slow motion, frame-by-frame advance, digital zooming in, isolating portions of the image or freezing it.

Instead, Miller’s guiding principle appears to be shoehorning as much and as varied an array of source material into the film’s short span. He hardly works closely with the images themselves; they’re cushioned by a musical score that resembles the sort of music you might hear in an action movie and by editing that helps them fit into the standard audiovisual flow of mainstream cinema.

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