Apollo TV: The Very First Must-See TV From 1969

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The Apollo 11 moon landing is one of the most significant and memorable television broadcasts in television history, with hundreds of millions of people around the world tuning into this historic moment, making it the most watched television broadcast in American television history.

Living in the 21st century, it can be difficult to wrap your head around how they even had the technology in 1969 to get to the moon and broadcast the experience for the world to see. If you’ve ever wondered how NASA accomplished this ambitious feat, you’ve come to the right place to find out.

In this article, you’ll learn all about the first live lunar broadcast and how people were able to witness history live from their homes.


Apollo Missions Background

Before diving into how the Apollo TV broadcast was even possible, let’s briefly recap what led to the broadcast on July 20, 1969.

Apollo 11 was the first manned mission to land on the moon and end what’s known as the “space race,” which President John F. Kennedy committed the United States to, claiming that they would put the first man on the moon by 1970. The spacecraft was manned by Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins, and Niel Armstrong. 

However, there were several other Apollo spacecraft before and after Apollo 11, with the first mission to have a camera on board being Apollo 7. Apollo 10 was the first ever live color transmission from space. While the previous missions did not have anyone step foot on the moon, they could take photos of the moon and display TV broadcasts using cameras that eventually led to the earth-shattering Apollo 11 TV broadcast.

On the Apollo 11 TV Broadcast, only Aldrin and Armstrong were seen. Collins stayed on the ship to communicate with the base and take photos of the lunar surface when Armstrong uttered his famous words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” for millions around the world to hear from their television sets. 

This successful moon mission was followed by a second mission called Apollo 12, the second manned flight to land on the moon. This happened just a few months after Apollo 11 in November 1969 and was the first color TV broadcast from the moon.

As one of history’s most significant TV moments, NASA needed to figure out how to broadcast this moment for everyone worldwide to witness history. Let’s take a look at how they made that happen. 

American astronaut on Apollo moon mission

How Was the Apollo TV Broadcast Possible?

According to the Smithsonian, over 650 million people watched the broadcast live. To put that into perspective, the world population in 1969 was about 3.5 million. With so many people tuning in for this historic moment, NASA knew how important it would be to broadcast the event clearly and visibly. So how did they do it?

The technology that NASA used to make the television broadcast of the moon landing possible was first developed by Scottish inventor John Logie Baird in 1928. In 1926, Baird demonstrated the first live television system, and in 1928, his company accomplished the first transatlantic television transmission and developed a system of color television. Unfortunately, Baird passed away in 1946, long before the moon landing, so he never got to witness the full extent of his invention.

The technique he used in 1928 formed the basis of the technique used by NASA to bring live color television from the moon. The color TV broadcasting system used for the Apollo moon landing needed to be light enough to transport and capable of transmitting live images from the moon back to Earth – over 200,000 miles away. Therefore, NASA engineers developed a smaller, more robust camera that would suit this purpose, which resembled Baird’s 1928 technology more than modern technology at the time.

Astronaut walking on surface of moon with Earth in the background

What Camera Was Used for the Apollo TV Broadcast?

The Apollo 11 Lunar Module landed with two cameras, but only one of those cameras actually left the spacecraft and was carried by Armstrong. That camera was used to photograph the surface of the moon and was primarily used by Armstrong. 

They also used an Apollo TV camera. The TV camera used in the Apollo 11 space mission weighed less than 6lb with a color disc diameter of 3½ inches. This was important for several reasons. First, every fraction of a pound makes a difference in a spacecraft, so there was concern that the camera would add too much weight. Further, it was essential to ensure that the camera fit onto the spacecraft and could be handled by the crew. This led to a black-and-white Westinghouse camera with a 16mm lens being approved instead of a more robust color camera.

However, all Apollo missions had cameras that differed and improved with each mission. Each of these cameras required signal processing back on Earth to ensure that both the frame rate and color encoding would be compatible with broadcast television standards at the time of the broadcasts. That is why NASA continued to work on developing the quality of their cameras to be suitable for further broadcasting of moon landings and other space exploration. 

Every mission after Apollo 12 used a color camera with a field sequential color system. This camera ran at a North American Standard 30 fps and used fragile image pickup tubes. A more robust camera was eventually developed by the Apollo 15 mission that was more resistant to damage.

Wrap-Up: Broadcasting the Apollo TV Missions

To wrap up, TV broadcasting was one of the biggest challenges yet one of the essential parts of the Apollo mission, especially for Apollo 11. NASA worked hard to figure out ways to use TV, especially color TV, to bring history to the televisions of people all over the world. 

Thanks to the developments in TV broadcasting, history was documented and immortalized for future generations to look back onto. While we may think of moon landings as the norm these days, those who witnessed that night in 1969 will never forget the moment. 

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