SYDNEY: After a three-year search for the lost Apollo 11 tapes and an exhaustive six-year restoration project, digitally remastered footage of the historic Moonwalk is almost ready to be broadcast.
Thanks to the efforts of a dedicated tape restoration team, the enhanced footage surpasses the quality of the live broadcast that stunned an international TV audience on the day of the historic event in 1969.
A five-minute highlights reel (see below) exhibits a number of the Moonwalk’s most remarkable moments including Neil Armstrong’s descent onto the lunar surface; the raising of the ‘Stars and Stripes'; and the famed phone-call between astronauts Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and President Nixon.
Clear record of the Moonwalk
“What we have now is the clearest record of the Apollo 11 Moonwalk TV for future generations,” said Colin Mackeller, an Apollo 11 historian who edited the footage and was a member of the restoration team.
All but the first few seconds of the final two and a half hour restoration comes from video received in Australia.
On the day of the Moonwalk, three tracking stations – NASA’s Goldstone in California, and Honeysuckle Creek and Parkes Observatory in Australia (featured in 2000 movie The Dish) – were tasked with recording the live footage transmitted from the Moon.
Camera incompatible with broadcast
The images were captured by a single small video camera, attached to the lunar module, but the camera used an unusual format, slow-scan television (SSTV), which is incompatible with commercial television broadcast.
As a result, the SSTV transmission had to be converted in real-time into a standard broadcast signal before being sent to the NASA flight centre in Houston for distribution to the TV networks.
As Armstrong began his descent of the ladder, problems with equipment settings at Goldstone resulted in a dark, blurry picture being televised worldwide. While technicians in America rushed to rectify the problem, Australian networks acted quickly by switching to the clearer feed coming from Honeysuckle Creek. Having seen the Australian feed, Houston switched as well, just in time for the world to see the indelible image of Armstrong stepping down onto the Moon’s surface.
“NASA were using the Goldstone station signal, which had its settings wrong, but in the signals being received by the Australian stations you can actually see Armstrong,” said John Sarkissian, an astronomer at Australia’s science research body CSIRO, who led the restoration project.
Mackellar’s highlights reel begins with the original dark Goldstone footage but a few second in wipes to the Honeysuckle Creek picture to show a much clearer image of Armstrong on the ladder.
Original tapes erased
When the Apollo 11 Tape Search and Restoration Team was formed in 2003, the intention was to track down the tapes onto which the unconverted SSTV was first recorded. It was hoped that with modern conversion techniques a picture could be produced that hadn’t been degraded by the accumulative effects of conversion and satellite transmission.
However, a three-year search for the SSTV tapes proved fruitless. It transpired that NASA had taken all the original tapes and erased them for use on subsequent missions.
Preserved for future generations
“After an exhaustive search, we were sad to conclude that all the tapes were shipped back to the US after the mission and were re-used, probably in the early 1980s. No-one had ever expected to access the slow-scan TV, and so those few tapes weren’t singled out to be preserved”, said Mackellar.
Resigned to the fact that the original SSTV tapes were lost forever, the restoration team set about tracking down the highest quality footage among the converted recordings of the first broadcast.
Another painstaking search followed, but within several years an astonishing number of long-forgotten tapes had been amassed from various archives. While the more badly degraded tapes would require extensive restoration work – including the only video from Honeysuckle Creek of Armstrong descending the ladder – the team had cause to celebrate.
Once the best footage had been pieced together, NASA contracted a specialist film restoration company to enhance the degraded black and white film and convert it into its current digital format.
According to Sarkissian, digitising the recording was significant in the context of space flight history because it allowed it to be preserved and copied for future generations.
It is anticipated that the full two and a half hours of restored footage will soon be made available to the public.