WHEN THE EAGLE LUNAR MODULE TOUCHED DOWN ON JULY 20, 1969, all eyes were on astronaut Neil Armstrong. But Stan Lebar’s ass was on the line.
A young electrical engineer at Westinghouse, Lebar had been tasked with developing a camera that could capture the most memorable moment of the 20th century – the Apollo 11 moon landing. The goal of the mission wasn’t merely to get a man on the moon. It was to send back a live television feed so that everyone could see it – particularly the Soviets, who had initiated the space race in 1957 by launching Sputnik. If the feed failed, Lebar, the designated spokesperson for the video setup, would turn the camera on himself at Mission Control in Houston and apologize to more than half a billion TV viewers. “It was my responsibility,” he says. “I’d have to stand up and take the hit.”
Building a camera that could survive the crushing g forces of liftoff and then function in near-weightlessness on the moon was only part of the challenge for Lebar. The portion of the broadcast spectrum traditionally used for video was sending vital ship data to Earth, and there was no room left for the standard black-and-white video format of the era: 525 scan lines of data at 30 frames per second, transmitted at 4.5 MHz. So Lebar helped devise a smaller “oddball format” – 320 scan lines at 10 fps, transmitted at a meager 500 kHz. Tracking stations back on Earth would take this so-called slow-scan footage, convert it for TV broadcast, and beam it to Mission Control, which would send it out for the world to see.
And that was the easy part. To ensure a direct transmission signal from the moon, NASA had to maintain stations in three continents – two in Australia (the Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station near Canberra and the Parkes Radio Observatory surrounded by sheep paddocks west of Sydney); one at the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in the Mojave Desert of California; and one at the Madrid Manned Flight Tracking Site in Spain. As Armstrong suited up for his first moonwalk, Dick Nafzger, the 28-year-old coordinator of the tracking stations’ TV operations, was as nervous as Lebar. Nafzger was the guy at Mission Control charged with monitoring ground equipment and the conversion of the slow-scan footage to US broadcast standards. “We were all going to be involved in something of monumental historic importance,” he says.
When Armstrong opened the hatch on the lunar module, stepped out onto the moon, and uttered his famous words about mankind’s giant leap, the tracking stations with a direct line on the Apollo‘s signal were the ones in Australia. The 200-foot-diameter radio dish at the Parkes facility managed to withstand freak 70 mph gusts of wind and successfully captured the footage, which was converted and relayed to Houston. “When the door opened, I knew the camera was working,” Lebar says, “It was pure elation.”
The world watched in awe as Armstrong took his first steps, and the camera engineers at Mission Control started popping the champagne corks. Amid the celebration, though, Lebar scrutinized the video, and his joy vanished. He had known the converted footage wouldn’t be as good as a standard TV signal. But as Armstrong bounded through the Sea of Tranquility, the astronaut looked like a fuzzy gray blob wading through an inkwell. “We knew what that image should look like,” Lebar says, “and what I saw was nothing like what I’d simulated. We looked at each other and said, ‘What happened?'”
With the rush of history upon him, Lebar let the concern pass. “As much as we may have found it disturbing,” he says, “the public didn’t seem to mind. Everyone seemed happy to see the guy on the moon.” Lebar never even saw the raw transmission; only the few tracking-station engineers did. But as they converted the feed for Mission Control and the worldwide audience, they also recorded it onto huge reels of magnetic tape that were promptly sent to NASA to be filed for safekeeping.
Not long ago, Lebar learned why the footage had looked like mush: The transfer and broadcast had degraded the image badly, like a third-generation photocopy. “What the world saw was some bastardized thing,” says Lebar, now 81. “Posterity deserves more than that.” Good thing the engineers in Australia recorded the raw feed. Now Lebar and a crew of seasoned space cowboys are trying to get that original footage and show it to the world.
There is just one problem: NASA has lost the tapes.
EVERY YEAR, NASA buffs and vets of the Apollo 11 mission reunite for a picnic near Canberra at the site of the Honeysuckle Creek station, which was shuttered in 1981. Seventy-year-old Bill Wood, an engineer at Goldstone during the moonwalk, describes the event as “a bunch of old guys in hard hats looking at an antenna while local TV follows us around.” Sometimes, talk turns to the effort to persuade the Australian government to erect a fitting commemorative on the site. But mostly, they just chat and show off old pictures and memorabilia.
During the 2002 reunion, one of the retirees produced a souvenir he had rediscovered in his garage: a 14-inch reel of magnetic tape from the Apollo era. They passed it around, marveling at how big and clunky it was, and then went back to their barbecue. The next year, a couple of Honeysuckle Creek vets showed up with keepsakes even more impressive: still photos they had snapped of the monitors in the station showing the moonwalk. The images displayed the original slow-scan footage, not the version converted for television.
“When we saw them, we realized they were significantly better than what had been seen in Houston,” says Colin Mackellar, a local minister and self-described space nut. He was only 12 during the Apollo 11 mission, but watching it on TV shaped his life. When he’s not tending his flock at Greystanes Anglican Church, he’s updating his Web site, honeysucklecreek.net, a tribute to the tracking station and the radio wonks he idolized.
Wood dug through his files and found an old Polaroid that showed the slow-scan footage as it appeared on a monitor at Goldstone. Like the Honeysuckle Creek photos, it was of a much higher quality than anyone had imagined. Curious and perplexed, he was determined to figure out whether the raw images of the moonwalk really were more crisp than what the world had seen in 1969.
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