During a recent dinner a few friends and I found ourselves reminiscing about formative moments in our collective youth. The conversation took a decidedly downbeat turn when a nationally televised moment we all remembered all too well came up: the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. Like millions of other schoolkids at the time we had been glued to the live broadcast, and became witnesses to horror. “It was NASA’s darkest tragedy,” writes Elizabeth Howell at Space.com, an accident that “changed the space program forever.”
The contrast with our parents’ indelible memories of a televised space broadcast from seventeen years earlier could not be starker. On July 20, 1969, the nation witnessed what could easily be called NASA’s greatest triumph, the Apollo 11 moon landing, which not only really happened, but was broadcast live on CBS, with commentary by Walter Cronkite and former astronaut Wally Schirra and live audio from Mission Control in Houston and Buzz Aldrin himself, “whose job during the landing,” Jason Kottke writes, “was to keep an eye on the LM (lunar module)’s altitude and speed.”
We don’t hear much from Neil Armstrong—“he’s busy flying and furiously searching for a suitable landing site. But it’s Armstrong that says after they land, ‘Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.’” Kottke’s fascinating description of the events points out details that heighten the drama, such as the fact that Armstrong’s heartrate “peaked at 150 beats per minute at landing” (his resting heartrate was 60 bpm). At around 10 minutes to landing, the astronauts link to Mission Control cut out briefly, which must have been terrifying.
“Then there were the intermittent 1201 and 1202 program alarms, which neither the LM crew nor Houston had encountered in any of the training simulations.” These turn out “to be a simple case,” notes NASA, “of the computer trying to do too many things at once.” Given that the Lunar Module’s computer only had 4KB of memory, this is hardly a surprise. What is astonishing is that such a relatively primitive machine could handle the task at all.
The film viewers saw on their screens was not, of course, a live feed—CBS did not have cameras in space or on the moon—but rather an animation.
The CBS animation shows the fake LM landing on the fake Moon before the actual landing — when Buzz says “contact light” and then “engine stop”. The animation was based on the scheduled landing time and evidently couldn’t be adjusted. The scheduled time was overshot because of the crater and boulders situation mentioned above.
There were, however, cameras mounted on the Lunar Module, and that 16mm footage of the landing, which you can see above, was later released. And then there’s that moon walk (which really happened), which you can see below—blurry and indistinct but no less amazing.
Just a little over eight years “since the flights of Gagarin and Shepard,” NASA writes, “followed quickly by President Kennedy’s challenge to put a man on the moon before the decade is out,” it happened. Armstrong, Aldrin, and Michael Collins landed on the moon. Armstrong and Aldrin walked around and collected samples for two hours, then returned safely to Earth. In a post-flight press conference, Armstrong called the successful mission “a beginning of a new age,” and it was, though his optimism would seem almost quaint when a couple decades later, the U.S. turned its sights on weaponizing space.