The only surviving, first-generation film of the Apollo 11 moon landing is being sold at auction on July 20th, the 50th anniversary of that one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. This isn’t the iconic but grainy-as-hell footage that was broadcast live on television. This is what was shown on the screen at Mission Control in Houston and it is complete.
The lot consists of three 10.5-inch metal reels of videotape recorded at at Mission Control, Manned Spaceflight Center, Houston, Texas. The tapes run 45:04, 49:00, and 50:15 minutes, encompassing the entire lunar landing process including nine minutes at the beginning of the first tape when Mission Control was waiting for the Westinghouse TV camera mounted on the Lunar Landing Module’s (LM) Modularized Equipment Stowage Assembly to be deployed on the lunar surface. Once the camera had captured the Neil Armstrong’s first steps, he and Aldrin recovered it from the MESA and mounted it on a tripod for the wider shots.
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.
It’s mind-boggling to think that such a historic treasure trove survived entirely by happenstance instead of being hoarded and lovingly conserved, but that’s what happened. When Gary George was an intern at the NASA Johnson Space Center in 1976, he went to a government surplus auction at Ellington Air Force Base in Houston. For the prodigious sum of $217.77, he purchased a lot of 1,150 reels of magnetic tape once owned by NASA.
Some of the tapes were a reel-to-reel kind then used by television stations. Since it was expensive and re-recordable, George planned to sell them to local stations. He did sell some of them. The smaller format tapes most got tossed. It was his father who suggested he keep the videotapes with the Apollo 11 label, and thank the stars above Gary George listened to Dad.
And so the tapes lay fallow but safe until 2008 when George learned that NASA was trying to find the original videotapes of the Apollo 11 moon landing. He contacted NASA but they weren’t able to sort out how even to view the tapes to see what was on them. He did his own research and found a video archivist capable of playing the tapes. In October of 2008, the video was viewed for the first time, possibly ever, and they were pristine. They were played again that December in order to be digitized. They were played one more time by Sotheby’s experts in preparation for the auction.
Meanwhile, NASA gave up on trying to locate the original videotapes of the SSTV high-resolution recordings they had so inexplicably taped over. Instead, they had CBS Television’s footage restored and upconverted in honor of the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 EVA. Now they have the chance to right this wrong, but it’ll cost them. The pre-sale estimate for the tapes $1,000,000 – 2,000,000.
By the way, that entire auction is a space nerd’s paradise. Be sure to browse the catalogue if you’re into that sort of thing. I’ll take the command module pin from Apollo 9, all of the rocket, satellite contractor and advertising models, and at least one of the prototype space suits. Oh, and the Mars globe too.