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, reading these journals to see how all of the astronauts, from Armstrong through Schmitt and Cernan, dealt with real-life challenges and discoveries on the lunar surface would be the best possible way to prepare.

For diehard Apollo fans who want even more multimedia content than the Project Apollo Archive and the Lunar Surface Journal have to offer, there’s a Columbus, OH, company called Spacecraft Films that’s in the process of transferring hundreds of hours of original NASA TV and film footage onto DVD, “the way it originally happened—without the filter of the media.” The apotheosis of this genre is Apollo 16: Journey to Descartes, a 6-DVD set containing complete TV transmissions and onboard films from that mission (which was commanded by one of my favorite astronauts, the imperturbable John Young, who later commanded the first Space Shuttle mission).

Being a map maven, I also have to include a link to Google Moon. Using the same tiling technology and drag-and-zoom interface behind Google Maps, the folks at the search giant have created an entertaining tool for exploring the landing sites of the six Apollo missions that touched down on the Moon. Each site is annotated with a map of the ground the astronauts covered during their EVAs and includes pushpins linked to photos and panoramas that the astronauts took from various spots. It’s a great way to organize the material, and gives you a much better understanding of how big the Moon is and what the astronauts actually did while they were there. I never knew, for example, that Apollo 12 touched down within walking distance of the Surveyor 3 spacecraft, a robotic lander that NASA had sent to the Moon two and a half years earlier.

Tracy\'s RockIf I’d been born a bit earlier, I might have been old enough to comprehend the Apollo missions when they were happening and remember something about them. As it was, I was just two years old when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, and my first personal memories of watching space missions on TV are from the Skylab missions, four years later. But resources like the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal aren’t a bad substitute for real memories. As my Web travels this week showed, there was probably no episode in 20th-century history more thoroughly documented than the Apollo flights. Space buffs everywhere should be grateful to Google and to volunteers like Teague, Jones, and Glover for putting so much of this material online. (And let’s thank NASA while we’re at it, for its enlightened policy of not enforcing copyright on any of the visuals it’s collected over the decades.)

I hope the space historians keep digging through the archives and interviewing old NASA hands, because Apollo, as a piece of living history, is receding fast. Of the 12 men who walked on the Moon—Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin, Charles Conrad, Alan Bean, Alan Shepard, Edgar Mitchell, David Scott, James Irwin, John Young, Charles Duke, Eugene Cernan, and Harrison Schmitt—three (Conrad, Shepard, and Irwin) are already deceased. The rest are in their 70s. We’re lucky that the technology to produce and broadcast high-definition, interview-based documentaries like When We Left Earth and In the Shadow of the Moon came along while they’re still kicking.

Maybe we’ll go back to the Moon someday. (NASA claims its Ares rocket and Orion crew vehicle will be ready for a lunar trip by 2020.) Or maybe the Apollo missions resulted from a never-to-be-repeated confluence of Kennedyesque bravado, Cold War paranoia, loose purse strings, and reckless confidence. There was, after all, something slightly mad about the whole enterprise of putting men inside tin cans on top of ICBMs and sending them to the Moon. I think that Gene Cernan—the last man to set foot on the Moon, in 1972—was making a useful point when he told Eric Jones in the Lunar Surface Journal, “If we went back again next week or next year or in another decade…I don’t know if we would have the mentality—I don’t want to say ‘guts’—to take the kind of risks we did when we did it the first time. Landing on the Moon was a risk. And I believe our inability to take risk today wouldn’t allow us to do what we did when we did it.”

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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