Apollo 11 at 40: You saw it live, but you didn’t see it right

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50th Anniversary of Apollo 11 Moon Landing

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This story was published on July 19, 2009. Scott Lebar wrote about his father, whose TV camera transmitted astronaut Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. Stan Lebar died in December 2009.

How we communicate has changed since the Apollo 11 moon landing 40 years ago Monday, but my father hasn’t. Not really. He recently called from Burbank, where he was checking on the quality of the televised images from his lunar camera. He’s still trying to make them right.

I’m sure part of the reason he called was to give me an update on the restoration project he had initiated. He and his cohort in preserving the Apollo 11 moonwalk, Goddard engineer Dick Nafzger, had flown from Maryland to see how Lowry Digital had managed to enhance the images of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin kicking up moon dust from the grainy, black-and-white telecast. The samples were released Thursday, marking the end of a long journey.

My father had searched for years for the original telemetry tapes of the moon landing and concluded they are not to be found. The next best thing – go to an expert and fix the degraded versions we have.

“You can see things now you couldn’t see before,” he said. “It looks great.”

OK, he didn’t say “things.” My father and I often don’t talk that way, which has been no measure of disappointment to my mother. I thought, he’s close to 84, not in the greatest of health, having shaken off cancer a couple of times with radiation treatment and surgery, and he sounds ebullient. Love these moon landing anniversaries. I think they keep him kicking up dust in death’s face.

The other reason he called? First on his cell phone, which he insists on yelling at for the voice recognition to work? And then to ask me to call back on the hotel landline because his battery was dead? Probably because he was on the same coast as his son and that’s what his generation always does. Burbank, Sacramento, have to call to say hello. Actually, before he embarked on the trip, he told me he was heading to Berkeley.

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“Berkeley? Dad, I can swing by and see you.”

“Really, it’s not that close, is it?” he said.

“Sure it is,” I said. “Easy drive.”

“You won’t have to fly?”

“What are you talking about?”

A few rounds later in this conversation, we determined he was talking about a completely different part of California – Burbank, Berkeley, Bakersfield, what’s the difference? – and I remembered my mother, Elaine, and her all-purpose line about my father, Stan Lebar, the program manager of the Westinghouse Lunar TV Camera: “He could put a camera on the moon, but he can’t ... “ And my brother Mark and sister Randi could fill in the blank. But he can’t remember the name of the city where his latest aspirations are being fulfilled for a final chapter in his life, one giant leap for humankind’s history.

“Just imagine,” he said during this phone call, “if you had video of the Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock. Wouldn’t you want to see that? Wouldn’t you want that for everyone? That’s what this is, and we’re trying to preserve it for history and future generations.”

With that, the second line in his room rang and he was off. He hadn’t changed, busy as ever, focused on a project that in many ways has defied the country’s interest in it. As the years have paraded by since the last moon landing (Apollo 17 in 1972) and space shuttles have trucked along in Earth orbit, the taste for exploration has soured. Or, to put it more kindly, has just been watered down. Been there, done that, tweeted about it.

Moments of melancholy accompanied the previous anniversaries as they passed, noted but unheralded. I recognize that the attention has faded, although, for the 40th, we seem to realize that those who participated aren’t going to be around much longer. That’s what any generation does, sense the next doesn’t appreciate the preceding.

My father’s Westinghouse team, working outside Baltimore, created a 7-pound camera with integrated circuitry to withstand the blazing lunar day and frigid lunar night and astronauts fumbling around in gloves and spacesuits. The point-and-shoot camera went to the moon and not only captured the historic moonwalk, it launched the next television age. The legacy of Apollo 11, as proffered by documentary filmmaker Mark Gray, wasn’t just the moon landing but that we were able to watch it live.

The engineering advances sprung from my father’s passionate belief that the world should be able to see, to share, the transcendent.

“It’s a bit mind-boggling to understand the true significance of the imagery of that moment,” he said. “And to have been so intimately involved in the device that created it.”

Human beings would leave footprints on another heavenly body 239,000 miles away, taking those first steps in breaking the bonds of earth and becoming brief inhabitants of the deep blue beyond. Technology would transport us there. Technology would allow us all to witness it.

Now we witness everything everywhere, from massive stadium screens to phones in our pockets, and all events are rendered YouTubed and ephemeral, clumped together among conspiracy theorists insisting the moon landing didn’t happen (6 percent believe that to be so) and tennis players grunting and Susan Boyle triumphing.

Maybe all that’s a good thing, maybe the extraordinary should become routine, maybe the exploration should be about finding and discovering with thresholds low enough so we’re not out of collective breath reaching them. Still.

The moon landing may have been the last great signature moment in history with all eyes focused on one image from one camera. And what they saw has disturbed my father for 40 years.

The transmission of the Armstrong moonwalk was an uphill trip. My father battled with parties in NASA who, hard as it is to believe now, didn’t want the camera on-board.

It was not “mission critical,” meaning it had no bearing on the success or failure of the mission. It added weight. It gave the astronauts one more thing to worry about. It was assigned a small bandwidth and 320 lines (as opposed to 525 on your TV at home) and a slow-scan 10 frames per second (as opposed to the standard 30 frames per second).

This $1 million camera’s discount image had to be converted once it hit a receiving station. What the world saw was fuzzy, ghostly astronauts, images degraded and mishandled. My father watched at Mission Control in Houston and knew his camera could produce a better picture.

I always said the image was distinctive and memorable. But I have pursued a path in journalism and enjoy the moments for what they were. He is an engineer. His goal is to fix them. The editor in me understands. And I appreciate his inner journalist. He wants the record reflected accurately.

Somewhere in the vaults, my father knew, were the original unconverted tapes, and he knew the world deserved to see them. My brother, mother and I traveled with him to Australia three years ago for a reunion of the hardy technicians who worked at the Honeysuckle Creek tracking station, which fielded the transmission from the moon. The moon landing anniversary takes on a greater glow there.

“I’m big in Australia,” my father has joked.

One of the workers had filmed a snippet of the unconverted images from their screen with a Super 8 camera. The clarity was stunning. That’s what his work should look like. That’s what it did look like. The original tapes were what he needed.

Nafzger, now 68, who was in Mission Control coordinating the tracking stations that night, joined the effort, as did Bill Wood, now 73, another space veteran.

The objects of their search were expensive 14-inch reels weighing 15 pounds each, holding 9,600 feet of tape etched with 15 minutes and 14 tracks, including Armstrong’s and Aldrin’s walk. The hunters checked tips ranging from those who believed their music eight-track contained the hallowed walk to those who led them to a snow-buried landfill in western Maryland, a particular search they eventually dropped.

“Didn’t pursue that,” Nafzger said. “Forty years in a landfill, tapes are not going to be in good shape. ... But we were open to anything.”

My father devoted the past three years to the quest, prowling archives and the warehouse of the Washington National Records Center, looking through massive boxes and checking ascension records. This small man, gray, missing half a lung, sometimes solely spotlighted under motion-detector lights, searched for hours for his life’s work, the view of the most significant 2-hour, 21-minute walk ever taken.

“You know that last scene in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ “ he said. “Like that.”

But, no luck. The original record, he concluded, is just gone. Nafzger said they were most likely erased and reused, a common practice then. “No one had the foresight to say, we could use these later,” he said. The future possibilities of digitizing the unconverted material extended beyond 1969 imagination.

So my father embarked on another mission. To restore what we have.

“Somehow I felt that the responsibility to find a way to restore the telecast to what it should have been,” he said. “And we just couldn’t let go until we did something to correct the wrong.”

He, Nafzger and Wood sought out John Lowry, renowned in Hollywood film restoration. In spring, they handed the Lowry company four sources, including the Super 8 film and a tape from CBS.

“They recorded the feed as it was coming in,” Wood said. “It was exactly what NASA was sending out.”

In June, NASA granted $230,000. Lowry Digital unleashed 2009 technology on them, 600 or so Apple Macs, to shine them up in HD for the 40th anniversary and beyond. The company that has cleaned up “Casablanca” and “Star Wars” enjoyed working on “a slice of history,” said Lowry marketing and PR executive Myron Nash.

On Thursday at the Newseum in Washington, NASA twinned the announcements. It acknowledged that the original was gone; it unveiled restored tape segments with more vivid detail.

I watched the news conference streamed on the NASA site. My father spoke. Communications have changed. He hasn’t. He quoted a note from Armstrong, putting the accomplishment in perspective: “I was never concerned that the picture quality was less than optimum. I was just amazed that there was any picture at all.”

Before the release, he said, “For me, that’s like the last piece of the puzzle, and I’ve done what I felt was important. To pass on the best version of the telecast for posterity that will be shown and viewed for hundreds of years into the future.”

The finished work won’t be released until September. Between now and then, he and I will talk, e-mail, exchange story links about Apollo and the plans to return to the moon in 2020 and marvel at the current discussion – yes, again – about whether astronauts will bring TV cameras and, if they do, limit the quality.

And he’ll leave it in other hands to get it right.

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Scott Lebar runs the Sacramento Bee newsroom as managing editor, overseeing all aspects of local news coverage. He joined The Bee in 1985 and has served in many editing positions from features to news, refining coverage, guiding breaking news reporting and directing investigations.