Original, first-generation NASA videotape recordings of the Apollo 11 lunar EVA
Three metal reels (each 10 1/2 in. diameter) of Ampex 148 High Band 2-inch Quadruplex videotape, the tapes with video of the Apollo 11 lunar EVA recorded on 20 July 1969 at Mission Control, Manned Spaceflight Center, Houston, Texas, directly from narrow-band slow scan videotape converted to NTSC for network broadcast using Ampex VR-2000 video recorders. The three tapes with running times of 45:04, 49:00, and 50:15 minutes, respectively, covering virtually the entire period of the EVA and including about 9 minutes at the beginning of reel 1 of Mission Control waiting for the lunar-surface camera to be be deployed; the audio quality of all of the tapes is excellent. Each reel of videotape is housed in its original red-and-black manufacturer's box with hinged lid (11 3/8 x 11 3/8 x 2 3/4 in.), the boxes also with printed adhesive labels reading “APOLLO 11 EVA | July 20, 1969 REEL 1 [–3]” and “VR2000 525 Hi Band 15 ips.” Each videotape also bears matching serial code labels on both the box and the metal reel: "133335–219" (reel 1), "134951–47" (reel 2), "134088–17" (reel 3).
THE EARLIEST, SHARPEST, AND MOST ACCURATE SURVIVING VIDEO IMAGES OF MAN’S FIRST STEPS ON THE MOON: ORIGINAL NASA VIDEOTAPE RECORDINGS OF THE APOLLO 11 LUNAR EVA —UNRESTORED, UNENHANCED, AND UNREMASTERED.
This primary witness to mankind’s greatest technological achievement was inadvertently rescued by an engineering student from Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, from the destruction visited upon the slow-scan videotapes of the historic first moon walk and preserved ever since. Viewed only three times since June 1976 (perhaps the only times since they were first recorded late in the evening on 20 July 1969 at NASA’s Mission Control Center, Houston, Texas), these three reels of 2-inch Quadruplex videotape justify a statement made during the mission by Capsule Communicator Charlie Duke to Apollo Command Module Pilot Michael Collins. Duke had told Collins, who was aboard Columbia in lunar orbit, that he was just about the only person in the world without television coverage of his crewmates’ planting of the United States flag on the moon. In response, Collins asked, “How is the quality of the TV?” “Oh,” replied the CAPCOM, “it’s beautiful, Mike, it really is.”
If these videotapes do not quite transport viewers to the lunar surface with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, they certainly put you in front of the big screen monitor at Mission Control on the evening of 20 July 1969, with images clearer and with better contrast than those that the more than half-billion-person television audience saw on their home sets. Home viewers watched video that had been transmitted over a 1,600-mile relay of microwave transmission towers to the major television networks in New York City, with each transfer causing a bit of deterioration to the picture quality. In contrast, Mission Control saw the same video that is on these 2-inch quad videotapes: moving pictures sent directly to Houston from closed circuit TV transmissions from the lunar surface beamed to 64-meter-diameter radio telescopes at the Parkes and Honeysuckle Creek Observatories in New South Wales and Canberra, Australia, respectively, and NASA’s own similar-sized antenna in Goldstone, California.
This direct transmission originated from a Westinghouse TV camera that NASA had commissioned specifically to transmit images back to Earth from the lunar surface. Since the camera had to be deployed before Armstrong and Aldrin exited the Lunar Lander if it was truly going to capture their first steps on the surface of the moon, the camera was stowed in a shock-proof and insulated mount on the Lunar Landing Module’s (LM) Modularized Equipment Stowage Assembly (MESA). Armstrong released the MESA when he first peered out of the Lunar Module, so that the camera would be in position to capture his slow descent down the ladder and onto the lunar surface. The two astronauts later removed the camera from the LM and mounted it on a tripod to capture a wider view of the LM and their activities and experiments.
The Westinghouse lunar-surface camera shot ten frames per second, using only one-tenth of the bandwidth of the 30-frames-per-second format then standard for television broadcasts (known as NTSC). The transmissions to Earth began when Buzz Aldrin engaged the Westinghouse camera circuit breaker. While the crew was prepared to deploy an erectable S-Band antenna to facilitate transmission, that proved unnecessary: since they landed in alignment with the receivers at Honeysuckle Creek and Goldstone, they were able to transmit the video directly back to Earth using an adjustable high-gain antenna on the Lunar Module.
The high-resolution TV images received at the Parkes Observatory were recorded onto a total of forty-five large diameter reels of narrow-band slow scan (SSTV) videotape. The images were simultaneously transmitted from Australia to NASA Mission Control in Houston, where they were converted to NTSC for network broadcast, and recorded using Ampex VR-2000 video recorders onto 2-inch wide reel-to-reel Quadruplex videotape, INCLUDING THE THREE VIDEOTAPES BEING OFFERED HERE OF THE APOLLO 11 LUNAR EXTRA-VEHICULAR ACTIVITIES—MORE COMMONLY KNOWN AS MAN’S FIRST WALK ON THE MOON. These first-generation recordings are sharper and more distinct than the few tapes that have survived from the contemporary network television broadcasts, all of which endured some loss of video and audio quality with each successive transmission from microwave tower to microwave tower.
The story of how these videotapes have survived is an intriguing and compelling chapter in the history of the Apollo program. The deep historical significance of the content of the videotapes is belied by their mundane appearance: three red and black cardboard boxes, 11 3/8 x 11 3/8 x 2 3/4 inches, labelled “AMPEX 48 High Band” and “AMPEX VIDEO TAPE,” each containing a 10 ¼-inch-diameter reel of 2-inch-wide quad videotape. Apart from their labels, so unremarkable did these videotapes appear, that Gary George, the Lamar University engineering student who essentially salvaged them, did not even attempt to play them for thirty-two years after he acquired them.
Young Mr. George was awarded a cooperative work internship at the NASA Johnson Space Center in June 1973. During his internship, he would occasionally attend government surplus auctions with coworkers, and in June 1976, at an auction at Houston’s Ellington Air Force Base, he purchased, for a bid of $217.77, a single lot consisting of some 1,150 reels of magnetic tape whose “Owning Agency Or Reporting Office” was NASA. Among all these reels were about sixty-five boxes of 2-inch, reel-to-reel videotapes of the type used by television stations. Since a new reel of Ampex tape then cost about $260, and since the tapes could be re-recorded, Gary intended to sell the used—but still usable—tapes to local TV stations near the Lamar campus.
He did sell a number of tapes, and donated others to Lamar and to a local church that televised its Sunday services. But many of the smaller-format tapes had to be sold for scrap or simply thrown away. Gary’s father had noticed that in addition to the manufacturer’s labelling, three of the boxes had smaller printed labels stuck on them identifying them as “APOLLO 11 EVA | July 20, 1969 REEL 1 [–3]” and “VR2000 525 Hi Band 15 ips.” His dad suggested that these particular tapes might be worth hanging on to, and Gary took his father’s advice.
But although Gary George has kept the three videotapes with him over the course of the past forty-three years, he gave them little thought until early 2008, when a Texas ski club colleague—who also happened to be a NASA video engineer—mentioned to Gary that the space agency was trying, unsuccessfully, to locate its original videotapes of the Apollo 11 EVA in anticipation of the fortieth anniversary of the first manned moon landing. Mr. George was put in contact with NASA about his tapes, but ultimately an agreement could not be reached about what to do with them—or even how to view them.
Left to his own devices, Mr. George was able to contact video archivist David Crosthwait of DC Video in Burbank, California. The DC Video studio had equipment capable of playing the now-vintage videotapes. In October 2008, Gary George’s videotapes were played at DC Video, very possibly for the first time since they had been recorded. Miraculously, the tapes were in faultless condition, displaying a picture quality superior to any other existing contemporaneous videotapes. In December 2008, Mr. George’s tapes were played for the second time since he bought them in 1976, and were digitized directly to 10-bit uncompressed files, retaining their original 525 SD4/3 specifications and downloaded onto a one terabyte hard drive (which is included as a part of the sale of these three reels of videotape). This was the last time these reel-to-reel videotapes were played until Sotheby’s specialists for this auction viewed them in order to confirm their quality.
As for NASA, the agency abandoned its search after concluding that the forty-five reels of SSTV high-resolution recordings of the Apollo 11 EVA had been “degaussed,” or, put more plainly, erased and recorded over. And any duplicate 2-inch Quadruplex videotape recorded by NASA, similar to those purchased by Mr. George, had either met the same fate or—perhaps worse—been irretrievably damaged due to poor storage protocol. NASA marked the ruby anniversary of Apollo 11 in 2009, by contracting with Lowry Digital to restore and enhance the footage of the EVA that had been saved by CBS Television.
FOR THE GOLDEN ANNIVERSARY OF THE “GIANT LEAP FOR MANKIND,” FIRST-GENERATION VIDEOTAPES OF THIS HISTORIC EVENT, NEITHER ADULTERATED NOR DIGITALLY ENHANCED, ARE AVAILABLE FOR VIEWING FOR THE FIRST TIME SINCE JULY 20, 1969.
From Neil Armstrong’s first step to Buzz Aldrin’s bounding down the LM ladder shortly after him; from Aldrin’s exuberant bouncing around on the surface of the moon to demonstrate the effects of lunar gravity to the remarkable “long distance phone call” with the President of the United States; from the astronauts’ solar wind experiment to their deploying the American flag on the surface of the moon; from the collection of soil and rock samples to the photographing of the “magnificent desolation” of the lunar landscape—this is the Apollo 11 moon walk as seen that historic evening of July 20, 1969, by the staff of Mission Control.