Moon Madness: Multimedia Treasures from the Apollo Era

6/27/08Follow @wroush

Last October marked the 50th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. And next month, Sputnik’s American offspring, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, will also hit its 50th birthday. The milestone has occasioned the biggest flurry of media retrospectives on the space program since Ron Howard’s 1995 film Apollo 13, including two well-made documentaries that aired this week on the Discovery Channel’s HD Theater, When We Left Earth and In the Shadow of the Moon.

If you missed them, it’s worth searching your local listings to catch these two programs when they’re shown again. (They’re also available on DVD and Blu-Ray disc.) Though much of the footage in the two films is familiar, they’re notable because this is the first time most of this material has been shown in high definition. Also, both programs contain extensive new interviews with the surviving astronauts from the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo days—plain-spoken rocket jockeys who are just plain fun to listen to.

Apollo 17 Landing SiteI’m a veteran space buff—my first piece of “technology journalism” was a poster on the Saturn V rocket that I designed when I was in the fourth grade—and the Discovery Channel programs sent me on a trip across the Web to see what else I could find in the way of historical images from the Apollo missions. If you follow NASA at all, you know that the Web is the best place to see the raw data coming back from current-day missions like the Mars Phoenix lander and the Spirit and Opportunity rovers (which are still trucking across the Martian surface, four years after they were expected to expire). But it turns out that the Web also holds a vast mine of original data from the Apollo project, and in today’s column I thought I’d point you toward some especially rich veins.

While NASA itself has a large collection of Web resources about the Apollo days, they aren’t particularly well organized, and they tend toward the hagiographic. The two Apollo sites that impress me the most are labors of love created by amateur historians with no direct connections to NASA. One is the Project Apollo Archive, assembled by a Lynchburg, VA, native named Kipp Teague.

Pay no attention to the 1994-era Web graphics and ugly HTML tables (Teague deliberately labels his collection of history sites the “RetroWeb”). The glory of the Project Apollo Archive is the material itself: thousands of photographs scanned from NASA originals, including large-format Hasselblad images captured by astronauts on Apollo 7, 9, 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17; hours of MP3 recordings of communications between flight controllers and the astronauts; and a few MPEG videos covering events you don’t see in the TV shows about the moon landings, such as the moment when Apollo 12 lunar module pilot Alan Bean accidentally points the television camera at the sun, destroying its vidicon sensor (and preventing the world from witnessing the rest of the mission on TV).

An even more detailed resource—hosted on a NASA web server but assembled and edited by a former Los Alamos scientist named Eric Jones and a Canadian space buff named Ken Glover—is the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal. Destined to be used by historians far into the future, the site is a collection of transcripts of all the recorded conversations between the lunar surface crews and Houston, interwoven with after-the-fact commentary from the editors and from 10 of the 12 astronauts who were actually there. It’s supplemented by MP3 and RealAudio clips of the same transmissions, as well as hundreds of photos, Quicktime VR panoramas, and flight documents, right down to the technical checklists the astronauts wore on the cuffs of their spacesuits.

Here’s one of my favorite passages from the journals. This is from Apollo 17, at the moment when Harrison Schmitt—a PhD geologist, and the only trained scientist to go to the Moon—noticed something unexpected:

145:26:22 Schmitt: Oh, hey! (Very brief pause)
145:26:25 Schmitt: Wait a minute…
145:26:26 [Eugene] Cernan: What?
145:26:27 Schmitt: Where are the reflections? I’ve been fooled once. There is orange soil!!
145:26:32 Cernan: Well, don’t move it until I see it.
145:26:35 Schmitt: (Very excited) It’s all over!! Orange!!!
145:26:38 Cernan: Don’t move it until I see it.
145:26:40 Schmitt: I stirred it up with my feet.
145:26:42 Cernan: (Excited, too) Hey, it is!! I can see it from here!
145:26:44 Schmitt: It’s orange!
145:26:46 Cernan: Wait a minute, let me put my visor up. It’s still orange!
145:26:49 Schmitt: Sure it is! Crazy!
145:26:53 Cernan: Orange!
145:26:54 Schmitt: I’ve got to dig a trench, Houston.
145:27:00 [Bob] Parker [EVA Capcom]: Copy that. I guess we’d better work fast.
145:27:01 Cernan: Hey, he’s not going out of his wits. It really is.
145:27:07 Parker: Is it the same color as cheese?

It turned out that Schmitt had discovered an unusual deposit of volcanic glass—formed under the surface of the moon billions of years earlier and stirred up by a relatively recent meteor impact—with a colorful orange cast that strongly contrasted with the Moon’s generally gray-black soil. (The moment is recreated fairly faithfully in From the Earth to the Moon, a wonderful 1998 TV mini-series produced by Tom Hanks, who, of course, played astronaut Jim Lovell in Apollo 13). If people ever go back to the Moon, … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • Jamie Roush

    Nice story. Thanks for the links to the non-NASA sites. I had always found the hagiographic NASA sites kind of disappointing. Thanks for the new word too.

    Harrison Schmitt spoke to one of my geology classes in college. Unfortunately I didn’t know enough Apollo history at that time to really appreciate who he was. I sure wish I could go back in time and meet him again!

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