Apollo 11: A true story you haven’t heard

At a 1969 gathering at NASA Hq. in D.C. two weeks before the launch of Apollo 11, dignitaries met to celebrate the impending historic event that George Bush Sr. would later call the greatest advancement of science since DaVinci’s journals. At the gathering was Arthur C. Clarke (he of the geosynchronous orbit invention and Sci-Fi book fame) and Brian Duff, the Public Affairs Officer (PAO) for NASA. Arthur told me this story that Brian Duff later confirmed when he was PAO at the Air & Space Museum for an opening of never-before seen space images I held there in 1985 called “Sightseeing.”

Arthur: “I cannot wait for those first live television images from the surface of the moon.”

Brian: “What television images? We’re not taking a camera for that.”

Arthur, incredulous: “You mean to say, you’re going to go to the moon, talk to people on the radio, take images and movie footage, carry it back to Earth, wait 30 days for quarantine and then expect people to believe you were there?”

Brian: “Hmm, we never thought of that...”

Next day Brian Duff called the head of camera optics in Houston at the Johnson Space Center (JSC), one Jim Ragan, and asked him to find a way to include a TV camera they had been using since Gemini flights.

Jim: “But, sir, there is not enough spare electricity for the color camera and there was no design for plugging it into the Lunar Lander, let alone hooking it to the transmission capabilities back to Earth.”

Brian: “It’s important, see if you can make it happen.”

Jim: “Well, maybe, we can get an old low-resolution Gemini B&W TV camera to work, but it’s not remote controlled...”

Brian: “Make it happen.”

10 days later, working each day feverishly to see how and where something might be possible, Jim Ragan flew to the Cape and they unbolted the shroud atop the Saturn 5 rocket to allow him through a hatch to crawl into the folded-up Lunar Excursion Module (LEM). Armed with his penlight flashlight held in his teeth, he reached the folded leg to the right of the leg with the ladder. Using a slide rule, he calculated the angle the lens would have to be pointed at to aim at the foot of the ladder. Then he used the slide ruler again to calculate the approximate distance from the now bolted-on camera and set the focal length assuming the surface of the moon would be fairly solid and not expected very deep dust. Then using Neil Armstrong’s lunar practice data for orientation, he calculated the likely solar position and set the aperture for the lens.

The harder part, as if all that wasn’t hard enough, was routing the wire hook ups into the systems panel at the side of the LEM. Opening the side panel, Jim spliced into the wiring bus—so that Buzz Aldrin could flick a breaker and turn the camera on and off. On and off, that was all he could do. The transmission signal from the camera was via an umbilical connection (coaxial) input that the circuit board had as an extra for future or emergency communication (radio). When the camera was on, the signal would be overlaid on top of audio radio chatter. Ground control then would need to separate the signals. Jim checked his work again and again, then, five hours later, left the shroud and they re-bolted the hatch.

When Neil Armstrong descended Apollo 11 to the surface, almost out of fuel, he rotated the LEM to better see the landing point. That’s why the images you saw were ghosted as the lens aperture was too wide open and what we saw was solar flare. And Jim always said he didn’t quite get the focal length right because the legs hardly sunk into the surface at all. However, without Arthur’s seemingly innocent query, and Jim Ragan’s brilliant work, you never would have seen those historic first steps.


Peter Riva, a former resident of Amenia Union, now lives in New Mexico.