Apollo was a massive national effort involving hundreds of thousands of people, but only twelve walked on the moon. The rest of us watched on television.
It wouldn't have happened without the dedication of engineers from RCA and Westinghouse, along with support from key NASA managers, who sometimes had to overcome the objections of engineers and astronauts worried that TV broadcasts would distract from the mission.
Designing a television camera to work on the lunar surface was a challenge. It needed to be lightweight and compact, and had to operate in extreme temperatures and low light levels. With only minor exceptions, the cameras worked as advertised, returning some of the most memorable scenes ever recorded.
The history of the Apollo TV camera broadcasts is recounted in Dwight Steven-Boniecki’s comprehensive new book, Live TV From the Moon, just published by Apogee Books. See the gallery at right for more photos from the book. (Pictured: John Young and Gene Cernan at the end of their Apollo 17 lunar expedition)
The first live television transmission from space was broadcast from Apollo 7 in October 1968. Mission commander Wally Schirra had been wary of flying a TV camera on this first mission after the Apollo 1 fire. “It was an electrical circuit, and I had not forgotten that an electrical short had resulted in the loss of the Apollo 1 crew,” he recalled later. Despite his initial reluctance, Schirra finally agreed to fly the hand-held RCA slow-scan black-and-white camera. The Apollo 7 TV transmissions became an instant hit, and even earned the crew (Schirra, Walt Cunningham, and Donn Eisele) an Emmy in 1969.
During the transmissions, nicknamed the "Wally, Walt, and Donn Show," the astronauts gave a tour of their spacecraft, demonstrated the effects of microgravity, and even played a few jokes. Schirra wrote “Deke Slayton, are you a turtle?” on a cue card, knowing that his boss, watching in Houston, wouldn't be able to give the required fighter pilot response--“You bet your sweet a** I am!”--on live television.
Pictured here is the final cue card of the Apollo 7 crew's live TV broadcast.
Genesis to Color
After the success of the first live TV transmissions from space, the public was eager for more. While Apollo 7 stayed in Earth orbit, the next mission would travel to the moon, allowing for the possibility of transmitting a live image of the whole Earth.
The broadcasts from Apollo 8 didn’t disappoint, and earned another Emmy. The crew's famous Christmas Eve broadcast was watched or heard live by one billion people in 64 countries, and became one of the most memorable events in space history. The crew read the first ten verses of Genesis as they circled the moon. The story of how they settled on that particular reading is explained in more depth at this PBS website. After this flight, the RCA slow-scan black-and-white camera was retired. By the time of Apollo 10, TV pictures of Earth like the one shown here were in color.
Yes, it's a fake moonwalk, but don’t get too excited; the photo is clearly identified as a test scene. Sam Russell, the RCA Project Engineer for Apollo 15, 16, and 17, created lunar surface models like this to assist in conducting color tests of the TV camera. After the successful broadcasts from Apollo 10, NASA was keen to make sure the world could watch as man made his first step on the moon on Apollo 11. The first transmissions from the lunar surface were in black and white, however, while broadcasts from the command module were in color.
Too Much Sun
The Apollo TV shows were not without setbacks. During the third transmission from Apollo 12, as astronaut Alan Bean was adjusting the camera on the tripod to face the Lunar Module, he accidentally pointed the camera at the sun, damaging the camera tube. Thinking that there was a problem with the color wheel, Bean hit the camera to try and get it to work. Unfortunately, that made things worse, and the abrupt end to the transmissions overshadowed the first color TV pictures from the lunar surface.
Armchair Space Walks
On Apollo 16, astronauts John Young and Charlie Duke explored the Descartes region of the moon. The rock visible on the left became known as “House Rock” because of its increasing size as the astronauts drew nearer. (When they first set out, it had appeared to be only half their size—a trick of lunar perspective.)
Beginning with Apollo 15, the color TV camera was controlled by Mission Control, freeing the astronauts to conduct their experiments. Additionally, Apollo 15 marked the beginning of the use of the Lunar Rover, which was used on Apollo 16 and 17 as well. The Lunar Rover enabled astronauts to travel farther in their explorations, and with the placement of the TV camera on board, the public could observe right alongside the astronauts.
Final Moon Walk
Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt of Apollo 17 were the last men to walk on the moon. During one excursion, Schmitt’s vision became impaired from scratches on his visor; when he lifted the protective gold layer his face was visible in the TV images—a rare event, and a reminder that humans were able to achieve superhuman feats.
For more information on the Apollo missions, check out the Apollo Flight Journal and the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal.