Live from the Moon: how we helped the world see Apollo 11
Posted on July 19, 2019
9 min read
Landing on the Moon was the uniting moment of the 20th Century, bringing people of all nationalities together to look up and marvel at our collective achievement as a human race. Many nations played a role in putting man on the Moon and bringing him home, and Australia’s role was to facilitate a broadcast that would be watched by the whole world. Sadly, over time the names and roles of all involved have been lost or rearranged or forgotten. This is the story of the pictures you know, from those who showed our whole world the wonder of another.
In a world of misquotes, misnomers and misunderstandings around who said what and when, there’s a single quote that is always delivered correctly:
“That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Those words will echo in our collective consciousness for eternity. Indeed, 50 years later, they still haven’t lost their meaning. For all our differences in race, our language, our politics and more down here on Earth, space is a collective pursuit that unites us as a species.
Wherever we are in the world, we look up and see the Moon as it moves through the night sky. Mankind put footsteps on our closest celestial body 50 years ago on 20 July, 1969 – and humanity watched it happen.
The greatest show (not) on Earth
600 million people watched the Moon landing live on their TVs around the world. That viewership feels small when you consider that everyone now has a screen in their pocket, with the ability to live-stream worldwide events like the Olympics or a royal wedding – but in 1969, screens were hard to come by.
In the 1960s, televisions cost around $400 for a black and white model, and just shy of $800 for a top-of-the-line colour set, between 17 and 23 inches in size. The buying power of the dollar was also far less in 1969, with average weekly earnings ranging from $63 to $72. With that in mind, hearing that people literally went out and bought televisions to watch the Moon landing, you realise the significance of those pictures entering people’s homes for the first time.
TV networks responded to this uptick in audience by feeding their huge demand for content. From the time the Apollo 11 astronauts blasted off atop a Saturn V rocket on 16 July, 1969, to when Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the Moon eight days later, hundreds of hours of broadcast were dedicated to the trans-lunar voyage – and its ultimate objective.
Long before TV networks all over the world were creating shows and news content from their own studios, it was decided that footage of Armstrong putting boot-prints into the lunar surface would have to come through Australia.
NASA struck a deal with Australia to help broadcast from the Moon, live, through Australian equipment, including the Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station just outside Canberra and the Parkes Radio Telescope in regional New South Wales, among other supporting facilities.
But the signals didn’t simply flow out of the lunar lander and onto TV screens all over the world.
That’s where Australia’s Overseas Telecommunications Commission (OTC) came in – Telstra, before we were Telstra.
When Apollo came to town
Connected to the handful of radio telescopes receiving data, video and audio of the Apollo 11 spacecraft was a facility in Australia owned by the Overseas Telecommunications Commission – OTC for short.
Established in the mid-1940s, the OTC was charged with the carriage of international telecommunications services in and out of Australia. OTC would go on to be amalgamated with the Australian domestic carrier Telecom, and would eventually become Telstra.
Part of the OTC’s mandate was to support NASA’s work in developing manned space flight initiatives throughout the early 1960s. OTC helped broadcast signals from the manned Apollo 8 mission in 1968, and supported the Apollo Range Instrumentation Aircraft (ARIA) project. The ARIA program saw two Boeing 707s flying over the Northern Territory and New Guinea, with a tracking dish locked on the location of a space capsule in between Earth and the Moon. The telemetry it received was routed back to NASA via OTC.
So skilled were Aussie techs at routing clear and accurate signals back to NASA that after Apollo 8, the OTC received a special citation for its efforts supporting space flight. It read: “The dedication and skill of the leaders and all personnel… in maintaining reliable communications insured [sic] the success of the first manned lunar-orbit mission and made it possible for millions of people around the world to witness man’s first venture into extraterrestrial space.”
OTC equipment, facilities and staff became intimately involved with the program as the Apollo 11 mission drew closer, especially when it came to providing TV signals and audio from the Moon. OTC provided around 90 per cent of the telecommunications links in the Southern Hemisphere at the time, so it was the ideal choice as a carrier of crucial space comms back to Mission Control in Houston.
OTC’s main telecommunication gateway between Australia and the rest of the world was situated in the inner Sydney suburb of Paddington.
These days, the OTC’s Sydney Video centre is tucked in between trendy pubs and fashion boutiques, standing as a quiet reminder of our proud history connecting mankind with the Moon. Back in 1969, six floors of the OTC exchange building were overrun by specialist broadcast and receiving equipment from our friends at NASA in the weeks leading up to the lunar landing.
John Vossen, an OTC/PMG staffer working at Sydney Video on the day of the Moon landing, recalls that some NASA personnel had issues adapting their equipment to Australian standards.
Weeks before the landing when NASA staffers entered the building with their equipment, one member of the US team went out and bought a 240-volt plug, connected it to a wall socket and then plugged it into a decoding unit designed for video transmission. ”A loud bang and puff of smoke ensured the power supply was at its ‘end-of-life’”, Vossen says, before the crew procured a replacement.
The solution to the power problems? Running a series of generators to power 50-watt batteries attached to a builder’s plank, allowing the decoding unit to run for two hours at a time. Allan Hennessy, who joined the NASA group as an OTC staffer, said it was “just another job at the time”.
“All too easy,” he added.
Security was tight at the OTC facility in the days leading up to Apollo 11. These days, we aren’t surprised by heightened monitoring and security screenings, but back in 1969 such precautions were bewildering to see.
The sensitive nature of the NASA equipment that transmitted pictures and audio from the Australian tracking stations meant that the front door of the Paddington exchange was sealed ahead of the landing. That meant all visitors and even the cleaning staff had to use the back stairs to gain entry to the newly upgraded international telecommunications fortress. Cleaners were even monitored by security and NASA personnel when they went through the exchange in the days up to the landing – just in case they tried to touch any of the carefully calibrated equipment.
Many OTC and NASA staff worked around the clock at the Paddington exchange building – “Sydney Video”, in their parlance – ahead of the lunar landing. All the equipment was installed, and staff began the process of checking once, twice, three times, to ensure that everything worked perfectly for this once-in-a-lifetime event.
The paint had only just dried on a lot of the facilities being used to broadcast the Moon landing in Australia, and the gear at their disposal was state-of-the-art by 1969 standards. Links between the Australian coasts had only just been completed a year before the Moon landing, and the cable that sent data between Sydney and Melbourne was barely five years old.
We might scoff now at what was once considered state of the art, but with coaxial cables and only a few hundred bits of data being sent per second, OTC was able to work Moon magic – both for the broadcast and behind the scenes.
Through this equipment, Sydney Video received an incredible amount of data during the trans-lunar injection. The ARIA tracking flights, for example, received telemetry from the capsule as it made its way to the moon, some of which was received by CSIRO radio telescopes and routed to NASA Mission Control via the Sydney Video centre and its coaxial submarine cable. In a press release issued by OTC at the time, an OTC staff member said that the astronauts were impressed how “extremely clear and crisp” the link between the Apollo spacecraft and mission control was, given how far the radio waves had to travel.
The amount of bandwidth required to support the Apollo landing was huge at the time. The number of international circuits – 49 in total – used by the OTC for NASA in 1969 was more than the total number of circuits available in the whole country just 10 years prior. OTC hailed it as a success – not only for their being able to command this many circuits for a singular purpose but to do so and still support the normal use of telecommunications services in Australia at the same time.
These days we take for granted the ability to watch a video and make a call simultaneously – we’ve all mindlessly tapped away at our phones while curled up on the couch watching TV – but in 1969, it was an incredible achievement.
As Apollo 11 touched down on the Moon on 20 July 1969 (or 21 July local Australian time), the OTC team were at their posts, ready for anything.
Anything, including a change in the schedule that took everyone by surprise.
When Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong landed Lunar Module Eagle on Mare Tranquillitatis, they were meant to keep to their rigorous schedule, which meant a mandatory sleep break of five hours. What would you do if you were the first to land on the Moon? Sleep, or walk?
Armstrong and Aldrin chose the latter, opting to prepare for the EVA ahead of schedule – and taking everyone on the mission by surprise. Aldrin clicked the breakers into the video circuit, to test the TV cameras, at 11:46am. 45 minutes later, the pair began to depressurise the cabin, and by 12:39pm AEST on 21 July, 1969, Neil Armstrong – and his boot – was ready to enter history.
As Armstrong began to step outside, the OTC and NASA teams at Sydney Video had their own unique challenge ahead of them: converting the video for live transmission around the world. When you’re talking about TVs, we measure them by their screen resolution rather than by just their outright size.
Video resolutions these days span between 360p for a low definition web video, right up to 4K and 8K – modern, ultra-high definition media that require a state of the art TV to appreciate. These numbers effectively refer to how many “lines” are displayed as part of a TV image. 4K, for example, has 2160 lines horizontally across each frame of the image.
Back in 1969, the best camera that NASA could equip to the lunar lander could output a maximum of 320 lines, which presented a problem: US TV broadcasts needed 525 lines, and Australia’s ABC required 625 lines. It became Sydney Video’s job to upscale the feed so it could be displayed to the world.
When Armstrong stepped outside the spacecraft on the surface of the Moon, he exclaimed “I’m on the porch!”; that “porch” was no ordinary deck. It came armed with a Westinghouse slow-scan camera – mounted upside down – that Buzz Aldrin activated to beam footage from the Sea of Tranquillity down to our watching world. It was 12:51pm AEST, and crews at Sydney Video were on hand to receive the video from the Westinghouse external arm camera.
The camera feed from Apollo 11 worked perfectly after it was deployed, but a series of issues on the ground made the broadcast a challenging one. The three receiving stations that were meant to support video for the moonwalk were all used in differing ways during the historic event.
Goldstone – a receiving station in the US – received Apollo 11’s video feed beautifully, but the scan converter used to increase the number of lines in the image from 320 from Apollo up to 525 made the image so dark it was almost unwatchable.
Goldstone had very little time to compensate for the issue, so instead of experimenting with the image, it switched the primary video source to Honeysuckle Creek in Canberra.
For the first eight minutes of the moonwalk, the world saw the images thanks to the team at Honeysuckle Creek, before the broadcast was switched to the stronger dish at Parkes – after the earlier weather and technical issues in the area had passed.
Sydney Video was on hand to respond to the switching feeds, taking the images from Honeysuckle Creek and Parkes and sending them in several different directions for global broadcast. When the signal left the Moon, it was received by the various dishes in Australia, before being sent via a switching centre, then on to Sydney Video in Paddington.
At Sydney Video, the OTC and NASA teams scan converted the video before splitting it off in order to upscale it for broadcast. One feed was sent to the Australian Broadcasting Commission – now known as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, or ABC – where it would be converted to the Australian broadcast language of 625 lines. The other was sent to Houston at 525 lines (to support the NTSC viewing format) via both a coaxial cable link – one of the only submarine cables in existence at the time – and via satellite for redundancy.
Because the video came in through Australia first, the OTC staff at Sydney Video were truly the first in the world to see the Moon landing. The feed came into Sydney Video 300 milliseconds before it was rebroadcast out to the US.
Bob Goodman recounted that it was an exciting time to be a staff member at OTC as he worked the floor during the landing. “By the time the Lunar Excursion Module landed on the Moon, the tension was electric,” he said, recounting that the feed from Parkes made the image look slightly jumpy due to high winds in the area.
We asked Bob what he thought about the fight between Parkes, Honeysuckle Creek and OTC engineers about who saw the Moon landing first. Diplomatic as always, Bob told us that “it didn’t matter.
“We all saw it in the end!”