50 Years After the Moonwalk: Looking Back at Apollo 11’s Broadcast from the Moon

Fifty years ago, the Apollo 11 spacecraft left the launchpad and began its mission to the Moon with astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins. Previous posts on the Unwritten Record covered the intense training undertaken by the prime crew, including 1/6th gravity simulations and lunar lander flight tests spanning several months leading up to the launch. And the astronauts went through years of preparation before the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) cameras began capturing the films presented here. But it wasn’t until the summer of 1969 that the world got to see this hard work come to fruition, broadcast live on television for all to watch in real time.

Live moving images of the Apollo 11 mission were made possible by contracts with the American electronics companies RCA and Westinghouse. RCA designed the color camera that showed the inside of the Command and Service Module, and Westinghouse made the black and white camera that captured activities occurring outside of the Lunar Module “Eagle.” Downlink signals from both cameras were received by large antennas in Goldstone, California, and Parkes, Australia, which were then passed along to Houston, Texas, via satellite.

Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin standing near the Modularized Equipment Stowage Assembly (MESA), Jul 20, 1969. (Still image from 255-FR-7728)

When the “Eagle” landed on the Moon’s surface on July 20th, video of Astronaut Armstrong’s egress from the Lunar Module was captured by the Westinghouse camera. One might wonder how the camera was already in position by the time Armstrong took those historic first steps. The camera was housed in the Modularized Equipment Stowage Assembly (MESA), which was deployed by Armstrong while standing on the Lunar Module’s porch. Once the MESA lowered to the lunar surface, Astronaut Aldrin activated the TV camera from inside the Module, and Armstrong descended the ladder. This ladder descent and first steps can be seen in the film below.

MSC (PTL) – Apollo 11 TV Transmission at GET 109:22 to 114:25 –
Moon Walk: Part 1 of 9, Jul 20, 1969. (255-FR-7728)

In addition to engineering the Westinghouse camera, stowage, and mesa deployment, NASA also had to consider how the astronauts handled the camera. After descending the Lunar Module ladder, Armstrong removed the Westinghouse camera from the MESA, attached it to a tripod, and moved it further away from the Lunar Module to capture extravehicular activities such as the deployment of the Early Apollo Scientific Experiments Package. This required a significant amount of dexterity from Armstrong, a difficult skill when wearing a spacesuit. As with all of the Apollo tasks, this had to be tested and practiced well before the time of the launch. The film below shows a technician in a spacesuit working with a prototype of the Westinghouse camera in 1966.

Apollo Liquid Cooled Suit – Westinghouse TV Camera Test –
Mobility Test-Apollo Training Suit. (255-SE-65-73)

It’s also important to note that NASA didn’t rely on one single camera to capture such a significant moment. In the following film clip, Armstrong can be seen attaching the Maurer 16mm Data Acquisition Camera to the right-hand Lunar Module window. This camera, which photographed at a lower framerate than the Westinghouse camera, captured the Module’s descent to the lunar surface and provided another angle of Armstrong’s egress. The full film will soon be available in the National Archives catalog.

Apollo 11 Lunar Module checkout, Jul 18, 1969. (Clip from 255-AK-17)

When the Extravehicular Activities were concluded and the Lunar Module left the Moon’s surface, several pieces of equipment were left behind to conserve weight on the spacecraft. Therefore, the original Westinghouse camera is still on the Moon today. Take an in-depth look at the Westinghouse Lunar Television Camera with this groovy article from a 1968 issue of Westinghouse’s “Engineer” magazine.

These Apollo 11 films are available in Record Group 255, Series FR, Series SE, and Series AK, and can be accessed at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland.