Seeing History: Broadcasting Live From the Moon

That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

Chances are when you read that line, you heard in your mind the sound of Neil Armstrong’s voice over a crackly radio transmission. And, if you’re like me, you also saw in your head the accompanying black-and-white image of the commander sedately descending a ladder onto the radiant surface of an unknown world.

As we look back this July on the golden anniversary of the first moon landing, we commemorate more than one of mankind’s greatest achievements; we also celebrate an unprecedented moment of unity for the human race. But little mention has been made to the technological engineering that made this latter part possible. 

An estimated 600 million people around the world—one-sixth of the global population in 1969—tuned in to the live broadcast of the event. In the U.S., 95 percent of households sat transfixed before their tubes as Walter Cronkite set the unforgettable scene. What on earth would the moon landing have been without its telecast? 

While many know of Wernher von Braun—chief architect of the majestic, hair-raising Saturn V rocket that carried the Apollo 11 crew to the moon—only a handful are likely to have heard of Stan Lebar. But without him and his fellow audiovisual engineers at Westinghouse Electric Corporation, one of history’s most significant moments may have transpired solely before a lone witness.

At the time the Space Race was heating up, typical broadcast cameras weighed close to a quarter of a ton. In 1964, NASA tasked Westinghouse to reduce this bulk down to a mere 7 pounds. This was just the beginning. The device also had to endure the violent vibrations and g-forces of launch, the tempestuous temperature changes of space, and harness an entirely new kind of imaging technology in order to process the extreme contrast between the blinding lunar surface and the total blackness of space. It took Lebar and his team of 75 engineers and technicians five years of perseverance to achieve the task.

Paired with another spectacular development—a high-frequency microwave signal transmission method called Unified S-band, which consolidated the transmission of mission data, voice, and television signals over a single antenna—the images and audio from the spacecraft made their way across the quarter-of-a-million-mile void to the living rooms of the world, where they became eternally etched into the collective imagination. 

At AV Technology, we celebrate the engineering achievements of today’s audiovisual pioneers, and help guide the intersection of this innovation with the protocols behind mankind’s other greatest achievement, the internet. And some day, when the first human descends a ladder onto the surface of Mars as the world watches in UHD, our industry will smile as one, knowing that all the behind-the-scenes devotion was well worth the reward.

Related:

[Saturn V Rocket Projection Mapped onto Washington Monument to Commemorate First Moon Mission]

[Christie Helps AMNH Celebrate the Moon Landing with a Giant Leap in Projection Technology]