Apollo 11 Footage Missing

Forty years ago today, on Sunday, July 20th, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the Moon, fulfilling President John F. Kennedy’s speech at Rice University on September 12th, 1962 when he declared:

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.” (Read the full speech here)

Apollo 11, with Armstrong, Aldrin and Michael Collins, lifted off on July 16th, 1969. The lunar module (named Eagle) with Armstrong and Aldrin aboard landed on the lunar surface at 4:18PM Eastern Daylight Time. Armstrong set foot on the Moon at 10:56PM EDT and famously proclaimed “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Watch the late Walter Cronkite covering Armstrong’s first steps (those outside the United States may not be able to view it):

Apollo 11 returned safely to Earth on July 24th, 1969. According to a September 1st, 1969 article in Broadcasting, 93.9% of television households (53.5 million in total) watched an average of 15 hours and 35 minutes of network coverage of the Apollo 11 mission between July 14th and July 27th, making it the most-watched television event at that time [1]. Some 125 million viewers watched the Moon walk [2].

The grainy black-and-white footage of Armstrong setting foot on the Moon has become well-known in the past four decades. Due to technical issues relating to the way the video was shot on the Moon and then transmitted back to Earth, the original high-quality footage could not be shown on television at the time. Instead, it was converted to a format that could be broadcast, in the progress sacrificing quality. Unbelievably, recordings of this high-quality footage, beamed to three tracking stations by satellite, have been missing since roughly 1970.

A full-fledged search for the missing 14-inch spools tapes, which also include telemetry data, seems to have begun in 2006. Here‘s a wonderful NPR article from July of 2006 about the missing tapes and the search to find them. According to this NASA press release from August of 2006 the tapes were missing, not lost.

Here’s a brief CNN.com video reporting on the missing tapes (those outside the United States may not be able to view it):

New, high-quality video from Apollo 11 was released by NASA on July 16th, 2009 but it was digitally restored from a variety of secondary sources (including the CBS News Archive and sites in Australia). This press releases notes that “a three-year search for these original telemetry tapes was unsuccessful. A final report on the investigation is expected to be completed in the near future and will be publicly released at that time.” Unfortunately, that seems to suggest that NASA now considers the tapes lost for good.

It’s unfortunate that the high-quality footage is missing but even the grainy video from 1969 is quite impressive to watch.

Works Cited:

1 “Apollo 11 turns out as biggest show on earth.” Broadcasting. 1 Sep. 1969: 50.
2 “A Remote That Broke All the Records.” Broadcasting. 28 Jul. 1969: Page Unknown. (Read this article at Broadcasting & Cable)

1 Comment

  • Eric Paddon says:

    It’s unfortunate that NASA lost the original HQ versions which US audiences never saw at the time. But sadly, this kind of inattention to preservation of historic footage is a rampant problem in many areas, including the Television networks. CBS, as the article notes, did have its moonwalk coverage available, and ABC’s footage also exists as well. But NBC’s coverage of the moonwalk incredibly was erased and only exists in the form of a home TV audio recording.

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