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Review: Live TV From the Moon


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Live TV From the Moon
by Dwight Steven-Boniecki
Apogee Books, 2010
softcover, 248 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-1-926592-16-9
US$25.95

Last week, NASA issued a press release warning the public that NASA TV service would be affected by planned maintenance in the early morning hours last Thursday. That prompted at least one wag to suggest that, without that release, no one would have noticed the outage: most of the time NASA TV hardly qualifies as “must see TV”. One exception is during a mission: space aficionados tune to NASA TV (or, more likely, watch it on the web) for live coverage of a shuttle launch, landing, or other key events, such as EVAs. Today, we tend to notice such live video more by its absence, such as when a Ku-band antenna problem on a recent shuttle mission prevented it from transmitting video to the ground.

Television cameras had to be designed to work in the harsh environment of space and transmit with limited communications bandwidth back to Earth but also be small enough to fit into cramped, mass-constrained spacecraft and still be used by astronauts who were trained as pilots and scientists, not cameramen.

In the early days of the Space Age, though, it was a very different story. Spaceflight was in its infancy, and television at the same time was still coming into its own. In hindsight it made perfect sense to try and use television to provide a live perspective on these early missions, offering a way for the public to follow along in a way not possible ever before in the history of exploration, be it in space or on the Earth. However, that effort was fraught with obstacles, both technical and institutional, as recounted in Dwight Steven-Boniecki’s new book, Live TV From the Moon.

The obvious challenge to providing live TV from space, be it Earth orbit or the surface of the Moon, was technical. Television cameras had to be designed to work in the harsh environment of space and transmit with limited communications bandwidth back to Earth but also be small enough to fit into cramped, mass-constrained spacecraft and still be used by astronauts who were trained as pilots and scientists, not cameramen. That’s a tall order, yet within a decade, thanks to efforts by teams at companies like RCA and Westinghouse, TV cameras evolved from a crude slow scan black-and-white camera flown on the last Mercury mission to remotely-controlled color TV cameras mounted on the lunar rover and providing, among other things, the only view of the launch of the lunar module from the surface of the Moon.

Technology, though, was only half the battle. As Steven-Boniecki recounts, there was opposition within NASA, including within the astronaut corps, to including TV cameras on their missions. They saw the cameras as distractions not essential to completing their missions, while taking up precious mass in the cramped spacecraft. The debate lasted well into the Apollo program. Frank Borman, commander of Apollo 8, was one initial critic of including TV cameras on the mission, believing that it served no purpose in carrying out the mission. “I didn’t want to take the damn television camera with me,” he recalls in the book. He was overruled by mission planners, though, and later realized his original views were “short sighted”. “It turned out to be so important because we could share what we saw with the world.”

Remarkably, even after Apollo 8 there was still a perception by some at NASA that television was not essential to the mission. In the final months of planning for the historic Apollo 11 mission there was debate as to whether include a TV camera on the lunar lander: scientists, for example, has no objection to including it, but had no requirement for it as well. It took the intervention of key people in the program, including Chris Kraft and public affairs director Julian Scheer, to get the camera included in order to show the American public what their tax dollars had financed. Even then, a NASA report on the mission prepared less than a month before launch and quoted in the book bent over backwards to provide a more technical rationale for the camera’s inclusion, including as “a supplemental real time data source to assure or enhance the scientific and operational data return.”

Apollo 8’s Frank Borman originally opposed live TV on his mission, but later changed his mind. “It turned out to be so important because we could share what we saw with the world.”

Live TV From the Moon does a good job of recounting both the technical and other issues associated with providing live TV from space, from Mercury through Apollo 17. One minor drawback to the book is that, while it includes many stills of the TV transmissions from those missions, they are all in black and white, even those from the later Apollo missions that had color TV. However, the book does come with a DVD that includes a variety of materials, from the video of the liftoffs of the last three Apollo lunar modules taken by the color camera mounted on the lunar rover to a half-hour Westinghouse documentary of their work on the lunar TV camera systems. There is also a video of a press conference last year to discuss the search for the “missing tapes” of the live video of Neil Armstrong’s historic first steps on the Moon that may be of higher quality than what was broadcast to the world because of conversion and transmission losses; those tapes, NASA concluded, were likely reused, their historic imagery lost.

In a mid-1960s journal article, John Lowrance, an engineering team manager at RCA, wrote that providing live TV would allow “a vicarious participation by the television audience in the most exciting and significant exploration of modern times and perhaps of all time.” Despite the naysayers who were focused tightly on carrying out the mission, that statement proved correct: the public was riveted, at least initially, to their television sets by what just a few years earlier would have seemed like science fiction: people walking on the Moon. It’s worth noting, though, that this interest quickly subsided; the novel became banal at nearly the speed of light. Today, we’ve come to expect live TV as a given for any human space mission, an expectation that will carry over to whatever effort for human exploration beyond Earth orbit that emerges from the current debate about NASA’s future direction. And, as the agency’s interest in so-called “participatory exploration” demonstrates, NASA now realizes that live TV is a necessary, but alone not sufficient, component of any effort to promote “vicarious participation”—and thus sustained interest—by the public in those future journeys.


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