The Moon landing was one of the biggest television events in history, reaching an estimated 650 million viewers. This incredible milestone in broadcasting was the result of years of planning and technological development.
Before Apollo 11: visualising the Moon
We have been drawn to the Moon for millennia; its image features in religion, folklore, art and culture throughout human history.
Galileo observed the Moon’s surface through an optical telescope and kept a detailed record of what he saw. His written observations and drawings were published in 1610 in the Sidereus Nuncius, which translates as ‘Starry Messenger’.
In the 19th century, astronomers shared their discoveries through magic lantern slides, which allowed painted or photographic images to be projected in lecture halls. These predecessors of cinema often depicted the Moon’s surface with surprising accuracy.
In the 20th century, our fascination with the skies became a cultural and political phenomenon. From the 1950s, the ‘space race’ saw both the US and USSR launching satellites and spacecraft.
Preparing for broadcast
President John F. Kennedy committed the USA to getting a man on the Moon by 1970. In a famous 1962 speech given at Rice Stadium in Texas, he portrayed space as a new frontier for exploration, appealed to the US’s patriotic pioneering legacy, and emphasised the historical urgency. The nation got behind him: over the next 10 years, billions of dollars were poured into the Apollo Program.
Apollo 8 and 10 pushed boundaries in space broadcasting, with Apollo 10 broadcasting the first ever live colour TV transmissions from space.
There was intense debate within NASA about whether a television camera should be carried in Apollo 11’s Lunar Module, as it would add weight to the spacecraft. Eventually, a black-and-white Westinghouse camera with a 16mm lens was approved. Deployment of a TV camera to transmit signals to Earth became one of the additional flight objectives of the mission.
Operating the lunar camera
As Neil Armstrong eased himself onto the ‘porch’ of the Lunar Module, he pulled open a storage assembly attached to the lander’s lower stage. Contained within it, surrounded by gold-coloured installation blankets, was the black-and-white Westinghouse television camera. To ensure it was able to record images of the mission, the small camera was specially equipped to deal with the high contrast between light and shade on the Moon.
The image and sound signals were transmitted via a lightweight antenna on the top of the lander. The umbrella-like antenna was lined with 38 miles of fine gold-plated wire, thinner than human hair, to reflect the signal 250,000 miles back to Earth.
In the cabin, Buzz Aldrin closed a circuit breaker, and black-and-white TV pictures of Armstrong’s ghostly form were beamed back to Earth. The images were grainy and indistinct, but they represented a stunning breakthrough in broadcasting.
Receiving the signal
After successfully landing on the Moon, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were supposed to sleep for a few hours. They couldn’t wait and requested to exit the Lunar Module ahead of schedule. This change of plans meant that Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station in Australia was in the perfect position to relay the first few minutes of the transmission.
Goldstone Observatory in California was also receiving the signal, but the picture was grainy and hard to make out. At the last second, NASA switched from Goldstone to Honeysuckle for the world broadcast. The Parkes radio telescope dish in Australia also began transmitting once it was able to have line-of-sight contact with Apollo 11.
The pictures were uploaded to Earth-orbiting satellites, then transmitted back to NASA’s Manned Spaceflight Centre at Houston and, via further satellite links, to TV receiving centres around the world.
At first, the images broadcast from the Moon were upside down, due to the position in which the television camera had been mounted on the Lunar Module for safe transport. Operators at Honeysuckle Creek flipped the picture for broadcast; when the astronauts moved the camera to a tripod, it was flipped back around.
Britain’s signals were received by the Post Office’s Goonhilly Antenna 1, known affectionately as ‘Arthur’, in Cornwall. In the video below, Pip Greenaway, one of the engineers working at Goonhilly that night, talks about the challenges of ensuring the broadcast ran smoothly.
From Goonhilly, the images were transmitted via microwaves to London and its Post Office Tower for distribution to other network links around the UK, ultimately reaching millions of British TV sets.
I remember watching the Moon landing in school... It was very difficult to make out as it was black, white and incredibly grainy, but looking at the Moon after watching and listening to Armstrong’s words amazed me.
Nick, 9 years old at the time of the Moon landing, recalls his experience of watching the broadcast
The Moon landing was the first all-night British broadcast; the programme was broadcast continuously for 11 hours on 19–20 July 1969. The coverage was packed with special guests, scientific experts, interviews and live music. Ian McKellen and Judi Dench read poetry about the Moon, David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ was played, and Pink Floyd produced the song ‘Moonhead’ for the broadcast.
Armstrong stepped onto the Moon at 3:56am British time. Most viewers would have watched on communal screens, or on home television sets like the Philips model 19TG 142 A shown below.
In the 1960s, it was common for television networks to ‘wipe’ recordings of their broadcasts, meaning that much of the BBC and ITV footage has now been lost. However, some fragments have survived, many recorded at home by viewers who wanted their own televisual souvenir of the momentous event.
You couldn’t record on a VHS or simply pause the television like you can now. I set up a camera on a tripod to record the television screen and a tape recorder to catch the audio... I did the best I could with what was available.
Mark Wrigley, on recording the Moon landing from his television in 1969
How did the Moon landing change broadcasting?
The Moon landing was a blockbuster opportunity for broadcasting companies around the world.
The Intelsat I ‘Early Bird’ communications satellite, which had helped provide the first live TV coverage of a spacecraft splashdown in 1965, was temporarily reactivated in order to broadcast the Apollo 11 mission worldwide.
Many broadcasters used simulations to flesh out their Apollo programming. Networks paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for scale models of Apollo command modules and rockets. During the broadcast, these were used to create simulations of the mission which were then intercut with real footage.
CBS worked with special effects specialist Douglas Trumbull to create their Apollo 11 programming, layering slides of graphics with images of the Moon during the live broadcast. This technique was later nicknamed ‘HAL 10,000’—an homage to HAL 9000, the antagonist of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, on which Trumbull had served as special photographic effects supervisor.
Conversations about the Apollo 11 mission often focus on the power of the rocket, the ingenuity of the spacecraft, and Neil Armstrong’s momentous first steps on the lunar surface. But the story of how this historic event was broadcast to the world is just as remarkable. Without the technology that made it possible, we would not have the images that created indelible memories for so many viewers and inspired countless scientists, engineers and artists.
- Michael Allen, Live from the Moon: Film, Television and the Space Race, 2009
- BBC Archive, Moon Landings
- Popular Science, How NASA Broadcast Neil Armstrong Live from the Moon
- Science Museum, The space race to the Moon
- Bill Wood/NASA, Apollo TV essay