The men, the myths, the landing of Apollo 11 a quarter-century later

July 16, 1994|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Staff Writer

Think you know it all about the moon walk? Guess again.

Twenty-five years ago today, man set off for the moon, beginning a week of unparalleled space mania. So spectacular was the hoopla surrounding the mission that almost every detail became embedded in America's collective memory.

Almost, but not all. Did you know that we almost didn't get to watch the mission on live television? Did you know what happened to all the moon rocks? And did you know you may not know the whole story?

Bad as the television pictures from the moon may have been -- the camera that recorded those first steps was immobile, the photography was black and white and the images were not all that clear -- things could have been a lot worse.

For until a few months before the flight, there were no plans to have live television coverage of the landing at all. The scientists working on the moon walk project saw no need for it.

"I think they were looking at it strictly from an operational point of view," says Christopher Kraft, flight director at the time of Apollo 11. "It didn't help them make a decision and it was something else to have to account for in the spacecraft."

Mr. Kraft, who was one of the final arbiters when it came to the mission, says he was dumbfounded by their resistance to

television -- and their belief that the rest of NASA agreed with them.

He remembers Ed Fendel, who would later earn the nickname "Captain Video" for his remote-control handling of cameras on the moon, speaking against live coverage during a planning meeting.

"I asked him, 'Who are you speaking for?' and he said, 'Operations,' " recalls Mr. Kraft, who now works as a consultant and still lives in the Houston area. "I said, 'Like hell you are, because I'm Operations.' "

"I don't remember there being any controversy over whether or not there would be a camera," says Jim McDivitt, who commanded Apollo 9 and became Apollo program manager three flights later. Still, he can understand why scientists did not embrace the idea.

"There was a tremendous concern about weight" on the lunar module, says Mr. McDivitt, now a senior vice president for Rockwell International. "We weren't going to the moon to land a camera on the moon, we were going to the moon to land a man and bring him safely back to Earth."

With characteristic bluntness, Mr. Kraft refers to the arguments against live television -- it had no scientific relevance, it was extra weight the lunar excursion module could do without, the astronauts could simply bring pictures back with them -- as "ludicrous."

And since both he and Apollo Program Manager George Low were firm believers in live TV, it's not hard to figure how this dispute ended.

"I told them to go ahead and figure out how we can take the television camera] along," says Mr. Kraft, who recalls making the decision in March, roughly four months before the flight.

But couldn't NASA have done something to send a better picture back to Earth?

Eberhardt Rechtin, a professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Southern California, worked with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in designing communications systems for Apollo. He says the space agency could have had color pictures of the moon landing, if only the decision had been made earlier.

"The argument went on for so long that by the time they got there, all they could do, at least reasonably easily, was black and white," says Dr. Rechtin, who agrees that forgoing live coverage would have been a colossal blunder.

Without TV, "the emotional involvement of all the people in the world, and particularly the Americans, would not have been there at all," he says.

Mr. Kraft says NASA went with the best system available; he doesn't remember a color camera that would have worked properly on the moon.

Mr. McDivitt, noting there were plenty of live color TV pictures broadcast from the moon after Apollo 11, concedes the camera used for that first landing wasn't much.

"It was not a very good television camera by today's standards," the former astronaut says from his office in Northern Virginia. "I'm sure there was a lot of technology we could have waited around for. It was good enough to do the mission, but probably not the best technology the world ever saw."

True enough. But at the time, no one really noticed. For the pictures it sent back were unlike anything the world had ever seen.

Speech and stones

What was the first thing Neil Armstrong did when he set foot on the moon? Well, the first thing he did was botch a mini-speech he'd been working on for days (he later admitted he meant to say, "That's one small step for a man."). But after that, he scooped up a few rocks and stuck them in a pocket on the left leg of his spacesuit.

For beyond ensuring the astronauts' safety, the most important goal of the Apollo 11 mission was bringing back moon rocks. Which they did -- roughly 47.4 pounds worth.

So where are they now?

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