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 .
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 :
Planned Apollo 11 Live Broadcasts
Thursday, July 17th, 1969
Friday, July 18th, 1969
Saturday, July 19th, 1969
Sunday, July 20th, 1969
Monday, July 21st, 1969
Tuesday, July 22, 1969
Wednesday, July 23rd, 1969
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 .