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Search Is on for Original Apollo 11 Footage

Richard Nafzger stands in front of the only machines able to play the lost tapes.
Nell Boyce, NPR
Richard Nafzger stands in front of the only machines able to play the lost tapes.

Almost everyone on the planet who had access to television watched the first moon landing, back on the night of July 20, 1969. What the TV viewers didn't know is that they weren't seeing the best images.

The astronauts actually beamed higher-quality footage back to Earth, but it was only seen by a small number of people at three tracking stations.

Those original images were recorded and put into storage -- somewhere. Now, a small crew of retirees, space enthusiasts, and NASA employees are searching for a moon landing that the world has never seen.

Houston, The Image Is Degraded

One of them is Stan Lebar. On that historic night, he was 44 years old and sitting in Houston's Mission Control Center building. His team at Westinghouse Corporation had spent five years designing a TV camera that would work in the harsh lunar environment, and he was waiting to see whether they had pulled it off.

When the lunar module touched down in the Sea of Tranquility, Neil Armstrong radioed in, "Houston, uh, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed." Moments later, Mission Control asked Buzz Aldrin to power up the camera: "Buzz, this is Houston, radio check and verify TV circuit-breaker in."

As the camera powered up, Lebar and his colleagues in the TV lab finally saw a signal. It was just a line on a screen, but it meant the camera was working.

"That's when we opened the champagne bottles," he recalls.

As the first images appeared on a screen in Houston's main mission-control room, the flight directors were thrilled. But back in the TV lab, Lebar says the mood had changed.

"What disturbed us is when we saw the imagery, we knew that something had gone wrong," he says.

For hundreds of millions of people watching, the picture was truly amazing; it was, after all, live footage from the moon, some 240,000 miles away. But it was hard to make out what was what in the dark, fuzzy scene. The astronauts' legs were ghostly as they came down the ladder.

"So they were saying, 'This is great!'" recalls Lebar. "And the truth of the matter was, it was being degraded something awful."

Converting the Originals

The images were being degraded because the lunar camera was recording in a format that was incompatible with commercial-television broadcasts. So the footage had to be converted to the right format.

Here's how it worked: The lunar camera was sending images to three tracking stations: Goldstone in California, and Honeysuckle Creek and Parkes in Australia. At these stations, the original footage could be displayed on a monitor.

To convert the originals, engineers essentially took a commercial television camera and aimed it at the monitor. The resulting image is what was sent to Houston, and on to the world.

"And any time you just point a camera at a screen, that's obviously not the best way to get the best picture," says Richard Nafzger, a TV specialist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. He worked with Apollo's lunar TV program, and says that conversion was the best they could do at the time.

"We're talking 1969. In today's digital world, it's pretty much a relic. But that's what it was," he says.

The original lunar footage did get recorded -- onto 14-inch spools of magnetic tape, along with telemetry data. And by 1970, the tapes had made their way to a giant government facility known as the National Records Center in Suitland, Md. Soon after that, records show that NASA brought the tapes to Goddard for "permanent retention."

A Race Against Time

Fast forward to April 2002. Someone who'd worked at one of the Australian tracking stations finds a tape in his garage. He thinks it's a copy he made of the original, high-quality footage. It goes to Building 25 at Goddard Space Flight Center, which houses the Data Evaluation Lab. This lab is full of giant blue cabinets that hold 40-year-old playback machines.

"This is equipment that would process any tapes we find of the original television," says Nafzger, who adds that this lab is the only place left that can play NASA tapes from the Apollo era.

It turned out, the Australian tape wasn't the moonwalk; it was a simulation from 1967. But it made Nafzger and others keen to find the originals.

Unfortunately, no one has been able to. Nothing suggests that the tapes were moved from Goddard or destroyed. Yet there's also no record of where exactly they're supposed to be.

The Data Evaluation Lab will be shut down in October. But Nafzger plans to save a few of the machines, in case the tapes turn up. He and Stan Lebar are talking with the retirees, sorting through old documents and hoping someone will call them with a tip.

"One of the reasons we're fighting so hard is that we're fighting against the clock," says Lebar.

The tapes will degrade over time, and all the people who worked on Apollo aren't getting any younger either. Lebar is 81 years old.

He says, in retrospect, the murky images that got broadcast on TV were thrilling. Their strange quality just underlined that this was an unearthly event.

"Walter Cronkite said, you know, it was really ghostly-like. It was really what it should have been," Lebar says. "If it was full-up resolution as standard television, nobody would have thought it was as great."

Still, Lebar would dearly love to see the original footage.

"What do we provide for posterity, when we know there is something better?" he asks.

At least everyone knows where the camera is: The astronauts traded it for moon rocks. Lebar says it's still up there, in the dusty Sea of Tranquility.

"People ask, 'If they ever bring it back, will it work?'" he laughs. "My answer is: 'Sure, why not?' I've got the ultimate optimism."

That optimism is what makes him certain that somehow, somewhere, they will find the lost Apollo 11 tapes.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.