Thursday, July 16, 2009

One Small Video

As long as you're indulging your morbid curiosity about the time Michael Jackson's hair caught fire (like I did), why not take a minute to watch another video, one that records an event history will probably consider somewhat more important 100 years from now.

Forty years ago today three humans left the Earth to explore another world for the very first time. People all around the world watched that happen 3 days later thanks to a low powered black and white TV transmission from the lunar surface. But we all remember how ghostly and grainy the pictures were.

I was a space exploration fanatic back then; where other kids memorized the RBI's and batting averages of Hank Aaron and Pete Rose, I memorized the flights, and specializations of John Young and Pete Conrad. Sitting before my grandparent's television that summer night, a Gulf Oil punch-out cardboard model of the LM in my hands, I was utterly transfixed at watching vague, fuzzy pictures from the orb I saw every night in the sky. It all looked so experimental and out-on-the-edge to my 11 year old mind -- partly because of the rudimentary TV picture.

I knew from our Surveyor probes that the Moon's surface was covered with powdery dust. But when this little camera was set up to show Armstrong and Aldrin bouncing around the LM, it looked for all the world to me as though they'd landed on a hard lava crust. The picture, as it came down to us via NBC at least, was that degraded.

But there is good and bad and good news. The actual, original transmission was of much better quality; it's the processed version we got that was so poor. And NASA engineers, realizing the historical value of what we were seeing, recorded it. That was the good news. The bad news is that NASA clerks and bureucrats evidently erased it all in the '80's so they could reuse the tape!

But there's still some rather less dramatic good news. Not all of the TV broadcasts and recordings in 1969 were created equal: some were quite a lot better than others. We can now gather all the remaining video, piece together the best bits, and clean them up digitally to make the best possible record of this epic event. That's what NASA is doing, and they are releasing some of it today.

You can view or download several sections in HD here (requires QuickTime).

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