45th Anniversary of the Moon Landing

Twice during the 1960s viewers in the United States and around the world were glued to their television sets as historic events unfolded live on the small screen. First in November 1963 when President Kennedy was assassinated and again in July 1969 when the Apollo 11 mission landed men on the Moon. Today marks the 45th anniversary of the Moon landing. An estimated 600 million people watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin bounce across the lunar surface on Sunday, July 20th, 1969 and I doubt any of them will ever forget the experience.

I thought I’d mark the anniversary with some interesting tidbits about television coverage of the Apollo 11 mission overall and specifically the lunar landing and moonwalk. If you were watching 45 years ago, hit the comments with your recollections. Was your TV tuned to ABC, CBS or NBC? Did you take pictures of the television screen or 8mm home movies?

Moonwalk Originally Planned for 2AM

NASA’s original mission plan for Apollo 11 involved a lengthy rest period for Armstrong and Aldrin after they landed on the Moon. The landing was scheduled for 4:19PM EDT on Sunday, July 20th and Armstrong wouldn’t set foot on the Moon until 2:12AM on Monday, July 21st. According to a July 14th, 1969 article in Broadcasting, an estimated 70 million viewers would be watching at 2AM [1].

Fortunately, NASA and the astronauts decided to move up the timetable by close to three hours and Armstrong made his historic first step at 10:56PM, allowing tens of millions of people who wouldn’t have watched at 2AM to do so hours earlier. In all, an estimated 125 million viewers tuned in.

Live Color Telecasts from Space

While the moonwalk, broadcast in black and white, is understandably the best remembered part of the Apollo 11 mission, viewers in July 1969 were also treated to multiple live color telecasts from space, not including the launch and splashdown. Here’s a look at the original live broadcast schedule, from the July 14th, 1969 issue of Broadcasting [2]:

Planned Apollo 11 Live Broadcasts

Thursday, July 17th, 1969
7:32-7:47PM

Friday, July 18th, 1969
7:32-7:47PM

Saturday, July 19th, 1969
4:02-4:17PM

Sunday, July 20th, 1969
1:52-2:22PM

Monday, July 21st, 1969
1:57-2:07AM
2:12-5:52AM (Moonwalk)

Tuesday, July 22, 1969
9:02-9:17AM

Wednesday, July 23rd, 1969
7:02-7:17PM

The timing of the moonwalk wasn’t the only change to the schedule. The Friday, July 18th live broadcast, for example, actually started at 5:18PM rather than 7:32PM. The Sunday, July 20th live broadcast was scrapped entirely. It was supposed to feature the Lunar Module disengaging from the Command Module but the failure of the Intelsat 3 satellite earlier in the month forced NASA to cancel the broadcast.

No Missing TV Coverage

As was the case with coverage of Kennedy’s assassination, its aftermath and his funeral, no network TV coverage of the Moon landing is believed to be missing. Update July 23rd, 2014: According to Eric in the comments, the bulk of the NBC coverage of the Apollo 11 mission is indeed missing. With that said, and like the Kennedy coverage, I am not aware of a comprehensive analysis of Moon landing coverage. Both CBS and NBC aired 31 hours of coverage, starting at 11AM on Sunday, July 20th while ABC broadcast 30 hours, starting at noon. All three networks remained on the air until 6PM on Monday, July 21st when their regular nightly news programs began (which included, of course, some additional reporting on Apollo 11). In addition, the networks aired hours of special reports in the days before and after the moonwalk.

What are missing are the raw telemetry data tapes of the slow-scan television (SSTV) footage from the Armstrong/Aldrin moonwalk. The footage had to be converted before it could be shown on television and the conversion process degraded the quality of the video. The raw data tapes, if recovered, could result in much higher quality video. Here‘s a July 2006 NPR article explaining how the footage made its way to TV sets around the world and describing the initial search. NASA’s final report on the missing data tapes, published in November 2009, can be found here.

(The vast majority of television coverage of the Apollo 11 mission broadcast in the United Kingdom in July 1969 — on BBC, BBC2 and ITV — is actually missing. The original video tapes were either erased, discarded or misplaced.)

Canadians Prefer Star Trek

According to the Associated Press, 15 Canadian viewers called station CJOH-TV in Ottawa, Ontario on Sunday, July 20th to complain that coverage of Apollo 11 had pre-empted Star Trek [3].

Works Cited:

1 “You’ll be there when men land on the moon.” Broadcasting. 14 Jul. 1969: 44.
2 Ibid.
3 “Viewers Prefer Science Fiction.” Hartford Courant. Associated Press. 22 Jul. 1969: 20.


6 Comments

  • Eric Paddon says:

    Unfortunately while the coverage from CBS and ABC is intact and complete, that’s not the case with NBC. For NBC only a pre-launch special from July 15 and 90 minutes of launch coverage (including the launch itself) still exists. In 1989, A+E replayed this surviving launch coverage for the special “Moonwalk: As It Happened” but when they replayed the moon landing they were forced to use a raw video feed synched with NBC’s Radio coverage which was co-anchored by Russ Ward and Jay Barbree. Likewise for the splashdown coverage they were forced to use pool camera and raw film material rather than the actual broadcast material.

    I have the actual NBC TV audio of the moonwalk featuring Frank McGee, Roy Neal and David Brinkley from a home recording on a reel to reel machine so it is theoretically possible to synch this material to the same raw video feed A+E used with the radio commentary. There is also a smidgen of NBC splashdown coverage in the National Archives as recorded by the Nixon White House which channel flipped starting with CBS most of the way and then going to NBC for the final half hour of coverage.

    Vanderbilt News Archives unfortunately recorded none of the special coverage (nor that of any other spaceflight) though the evening newscasts during the flights are all available from them.

  • Delbert "Dellie Goose" Hutchinson says:

    Reporting For ABC Was Frank Reynolds,Howard K.Smith And Jules Bergman As Well As NBC Had Chet Huntley,David Brinkley And Frank McGee And CBS Walter Cronkite And Former Astronaut Wally Schirra That Is On July 20,1969 When Millions Of Viewers Watched Watched Walter Cronkite Jules Bergman ABC Chief Science Editor Was Deadpan And Humorless NBC’s Frank McGee Was Stern And Teasing. I Like CBS Walter Cronkite’s Knowledge Entusiasim Better Than Jules And Frank Walter Cronkite Who Was The Best Then Of Course CBS Walter Cronkite Was CBS Newsman Doing Space Coverage. Way Better Than Jules Bergman And Frank McGee July 16,1969 Apollo 11 Blasted Off In Space And They Did. I Recall Singing Hey Jude During Apollo 11 On July 21,1969

  • Alan says:

    About 10 years ago or so a guy in the UJ died who had a video recorder in the late 60s – early 70s and recorded lots of stuff- he was recycling compuyer tape that he had manually cut down to the proper size- so sometimes it was not wide enough. Among the things that they discovered he had when going through his stuff was the BBC coverage- not all of it – of the Apollo 11 mission. So BBC did wind up getting some of it back. I also know he had 2 Doctor Who episodes although both of them were ones that the BBC already had in their archives. One was the only segemnt they had of the serial it came from so if he had done it a week earlier or later a missing episode would have been found.

  • Tim says:

    I had a old 3″ reel of audio tape digitized recently, and I found one hour of recording of the moon landing as I watched NBC the evening of July 20, 1969.I had thought the tape contained personal recordings from my college years. What a surprise. It starts after the actual landing as Neil and Buzz were preparing to exit the lander. The sound quality is very clear as David Brinkley and Frank McGee gave intermittent commentary and Houston communicated with the astronauts.

  • Delbert "Dellie Goose" Hutchinson says:

    Reporting For ABC Was Frank Reynolds And Jules Bergman. as well as NBC Had Chet Huntley,David Brinkley And Frank McGee and CBS Had
    Walter Cronkite And Astronaut Wally Schirra.

  • Delbert "Dellie Goose" Hutchinson says:

    ABC’s Frank Reynolds And Jules Bergman Did The Reporting As Well As NBC Had Chet Huntley,David Brinkley And Frank McGee And Then Of Course CBS Had Walter Cronkite And Astronaut Wally Schirra. On Apollo 11.

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