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By Heuring, David | American Cinematographer, November 2009 | Go to article overview

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Heuring, David, American Cinematographer


One Giant Leap for Clarity

The images from the July 1969 Apollo 11 moonwalk are burned into our collective consciousness. Neil Armstrong's momentous hop from the ladder of the lunar landing module to the surface of the moon is a symbol of the 20th century and of humanity's urge to explore. The millions who saw the murky black-and-white pictures on live television were group witnesses to history in a way that was wholly unprecedented; in recognition of the historic nature of the images captured on their space missions, Armstrong. Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins were made honorary members of the American Society of Cinematographers. joining luminaries like Thomas Edison and George Eastman on a very exclusive list

To mark the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, NASA entrusted the moonwalk images to Lowry Digital. The company's résumé includes more than 400 restorations, including Citizen Kane, Rashomon and The Robe.

Astonishingly, the original recordings of the video images transmitted from Apollo 11 to NASA did not survive. According to NASA, the original 1 " videotape copies of this footage seem to have been degaussed, recertified and reused. At tracking stations in Australia and the United States, telemetry tapes recorded the transmissions from space, but a three-year search for these tapes proved unsuccessful.

Lowry Digital's work on the project was divided into two stages. From the roughly 2]? hours of Apollo 1 1 video, 15 highlight sequences were selected and restored first so they would be ready in time for the anniversary. These 15 scenes represent the most significant moments of the 3Vi? hours Armstrong and Aldrin spent on the lunar surface, including Armstrong's "one small step," the planting of the American flag, Aldrin running and jumping to demonstrate the moon's weaker gravity, and a pause to take a congratulatory call from president Richard Nixon. The rest of the footage was restored in a second phase that was finished in September.

The original images had been captured using a custom-designed video camera and beamed to earth at 10 fps. Armstrong's famous descent of the ladder was captured while the camera was mounted on the leg of the Apollo 1 1 lunar landing module. Later, the camera was moved to a tripod, where it captured such images as the flag being planted and the astronauts toying with gravity. The images were sent to Earth using slow-scan television (SSTV), a low-bandwidth mode of video communication. Scan converters, capable of 320 lines of resolution at 10 fps, were used to adapt these images to a standard U.S. NTSC broadcast TV signal (525 lines at 30 fps). The tracking sites converted the signals and transmitted them to Mission Control in Houston using microwave links, Intelsat communications satellites and AT&T analog landlines. By the time the images appeared on international television, they were substantially degraded.

For the restoration, a team of Apollo-era engineers who helped produce the 1969 live broadcast of the moonwalk acquired the best of the broadcast-format video from a variety of sources. These included a copy of a tape recorded at NASA's video-switching center in Sydney, Australia, where downlinked television was received for transmission to the U.S.; original broadcast tapes from the CBS News Archive recorded via direct microwave and landline feeds from NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston; and kinescopes, found in film vaults, that had not been seen for 36 years. Another source was a reel of 8mm film from a wind-up camera that had been handheld and aimed at a video monitor at a tracking site in Australia; this 8mm film includes the only existing copy of some brief portions of the telecast.

One major puzzle for Lowry Digital was deciphering the various formats, frame rates and resolutions in the source material. Conversion techniques moved fields and frames ahead and back to make the 10 fps material work in 25 fps PAL or 30 fps NTSC. …

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