History

Apollo 11 at 50: TV images for the ages, from ‘one of history’s great unsung heroes’

Watch the Apollo 11 mission land on the moon

This montage video shows highlights from the Apollo 11 mission, from liftoff in Florida to Neil Armstrong's famous step to the departure from the moon.
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This montage video shows highlights from the Apollo 11 mission, from liftoff in Florida to Neil Armstrong's famous step to the departure from the moon.

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50th Anniversary of Apollo 11 Moon Landing

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My father sort of communicated with me after he died in 2009 with messages to remind me who he was. At about 3:50 p.m. daily, the algorithms of time and programs, and the invisible circuity of the immediate communications world he helped create, would tell me he was gone.

These were the Google alerts I set up long ago for “Stan Lebar” and “Stanley Lebar” and “lunar TV camera” and “Apollo 11.” They arrived in my email with the latest incarnation of “Stan Lebar, lunar TV creator, has died,” as the stories about him spread from news sites large and small to fanboy space geek world, where some still worshiped the glory of the original pursuits of the U.S. space program and others denied the accomplishments ever happened.

Dad hated the deniers, and devoted a good part of his life to making sure the Apollo 11 history and the legacy of the singular moment remained intact. He had provided that moment we all could cherish forever. His camera was a gift, a technological wonder 50 years ago.

The alerts slowed down and lay dormant until recently. With the 50th anniversary approaching July 20 (and the anniversary of the launch July 16), my emails fill up daily with an assortment of stories I know would please and annoy him. This week, this headline would have set him off: The Orlando Sentinel’s “Believe it or not: Some still think Apollo 11 moon landing was a fake.”

That would have resulted in a heavy sigh. Or, the NPR report that said an RCA camera, not his Westinghouse camera, captured the first steps would have made him cringe.

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He left the cringing up to his surviving family. After the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, he told me he wouldn’t be alive for the 50th, and sadly, as usual, he was right. He made clear he wanted me to ensure his legacy remained intact, that what was said about him and his accomplishments was accurate and true, even though he always believed the recognition wasn’t as important as the achievement.

I have found I can’t stem the tide of misinformation, or correct the odd erosion of truth about the mission and his contributions. And I’m not sure how much people care about the details of such a monumental achievement anyway.

As with much of history in our rear-view mirror of memory, objects were different than we make them appear, twisted to conform to what we often want to believe. The Apollo 11 deniers can prove the landing was a hoax. Those wishing to make a buck can claim they own artifacts they do not have. Wiki entries and stories and commentary are revamped, enhanced, inflated, taking and giving credit my father never really cared much about.

But I do.

His Westinghouse black and white Lunar TV, all 7 pounds of it, a million-dollar item operating on 7 watts with an odd frame-rate and resolution per NASA’s specs, had shown the most significant human achievement of the 20th century. He and his team created a TV camera that had not existed before to capture a moment that had never occurred before.

“LIVE FROM THE MOON” the white type spelled out on the screen. Neil Armstrong hopped about four feet off the Apollo 11 Eagle’s ladder in that historic small/giant leap to the lunar surface at 7:56 p.m. PDT July 20, 1969. First man on the moon, first human on another heavenly body, first footsteps beyond our celestial front yard, 250,000 miles away. And we watched, between 500 million and 600 million people, no one really knows, because of my father’s efforts long ago.

The moon landing wasn’t just a turning point in history, it was a cosmic show, a TV milestone that altered our universe in communication.

If you’re reading this on your phone, my father’s handiwork is in your palm.

AP_6904011373.jpg
This television camera is the one Apollo astronauts will take with them when they land on the moon, held by Stanley Lebar, program manager for Westinghouse Electric Corporation in April 1969. Built by Westinghouse for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the camera is capable of operating both in the vacuum of space and in the special atmosphere of the Apollo spacecraft. In addition, the imaging tube in the camera will make it possible to produce pictures in the darkness of the lunar night. The camera can withstand temperature extremes ranging from the 250 degrees Fahrenheit it will encounter during the lunar day to 300 degrees below zero at night. (AP Photo) AP file

“It changed the way we used TV,” Richard Nafzger, a retired Goddard engineer, said in an email. “Science, emergencies, public affairs, etc., from that day on.”

Nafzger, 78, collaborated with my father on a project to restore the tapes capturing the lunar walk for the 40th anniversary, and was in charge of the ground stations that received the images. I recently contacted him because, according to my Google alerts, some guy claimed to have the “missing tapes” and was auctioning them through Sotheby’s, with speculation they could fetch a couple of million bucks.

They may. They could be an unusual item. According to the Reuters story, in a batch of NASA tapes he bought in 1976 were three Ampex videotapes of the lunar walk. Later he heard about the missing tapes. He told Reuters: “Quite frankly, I was sitting at the table drinking a beer and I said, ‘Well damn, I have those.’”

Um, no. No, he didn’t. No, Sotheby’s doesn’t. As NASA says, those weren’t videotapes. They were telemetry tapes.

Sotheby’s claim that they are “best surviving NASA videotape recordings of the historic Apollo 11 Moon Landing” with “images clearer and with better contrast than those that the more than half-billion-person television audience witnessed that momentous July day on their home sets” is hard to verify and, according to those familiar with the various pool records, dubious at best.

The sought-after telemetry tapes are 14-inch reels weighing 15 pounds each, holding 9,600 feet of tape etched with 15 minutes and 14 tracks of mission information, from audio to biometrics. My father devoted the last years of his life searching for them. He concluded NASA reused the Apollo 11 tapes for other missions.

They would have contained the unconverted sharp images Sotheby’s is boasting. The items may have value – the buyer can determine that – but they are a different animal.

That story set off an email chain Nafzger shared with me, from those intimately familiar with the restoration of the existing lunar footage, a project my father worked on shortly before he died. I’m not surprised by how impassioned they were about setting the record straight. No one likes their work invalidated.

My father would have been upset, too.

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He was easy to prick. I intentionally annoyed him by sending him stories that were in my alerts in another language with a message, “dad, I can’t believe you let them say this about you.”

He had little patience for anyone who interviewed him who had not done basic homework. An email he sent me:

“Hi Scott: I have to admit that I was totally confused by the reporter who called. He didn’t tell me how or why he called other then he understood that I was somehow involved with the museum. I told him about the Lunar TV camera that they have and that confused him and he wanted to know what it had been used for. When I told him, he said, You mean they actually took a TV camera to the moon and showed the guy on the moon on live TV? The obvious response would have been what orifice has he had his head stuck in during the last 20 or so years. He then asked me if I worked on the moon program. I suggested he Google me.”

He believed in accuracy, not a bad thing to share with his journalist son. He was motivated to provide real images in real time of the greatest event of the 20th century, an event you paid for, and event you could witness.

“What Stan Lebar, Westinghouse and NASA and others did in bringing TV from the moon (was) enable a worldwide audience to participate real time in historic event,” Nafzger said in an email. “It enabled us to be there at a historic event as it was happening. When has such an event been viewed live? Chris Columbus, Wright brothers, etc.? TV made a huge impact.”

So, I respond to some, not to others. The video that showed up in my alerts that said “Lunar TV Camera Creator Murdered – The Stanley Lebar Mystery,” saying he found out it was all a hoax? No.

That it was the RCA camera? Respond, yes. I emailed the expert who made the erroneous comment for NPR that this was not a small detail, that he competed against RCA, or the “RCA Team.” Dad didn’t have a so-called team, so he named his group “Furcat” to force NASA officials to ask him what that was. He loved answering: “F--- you, RCA Team.”

I occasionally see additions to stories about my father that dispute what he said in them about some aspect of the program, know he would have loved to respond, and let them go. Others see pieces of information, know my connection, and email, text and social me to let me know.

They feel a connection and, for many over, say, 55 years old, this was a signature moment. That remains powerfully true. Andrew Chaikin is a journalist and expert on the space program.

“My life was utterly transformed by the Apollo moon landings, and of course I experienced them on TV like everyone else,” he said in an email. “Your father’s efforts to enable live TV from the moon literally made it possible for hundreds of millions of people to share in the greatest milestone in modern human history as it happened.”

That echoes the more pleasing Google alerts stacking up in my email. So maybe we can focus a bit on Chaikin’s perspective:

“We were all eyewitnesses to an event that marked humanity’s transformation into a spacefaring species,” he wrote. “Like every other space geek who saw the Apollo 11 moonwalk, I will never forget those ghostly black and white images, almost dreamlike, and yet somehow quite fitting for such an extraordinary event. Fifty years later those images are still powerful, still awe-inspiring.”

In 2014, I was watching the World Series with my brother in Maryland and received emails about a PBS documentary that featured my father. We were mystified. Turned out to be “How We Got to Now: Glass” and, at about the 25:30 mark, Steven Johnson refers to dad as “one of history’s great unsung heroes.”

My brother and I agree we were relieved Dad didn’t hear that. He would have repeated that ad nauseam. But that is a nice one to let go unchallenged.

Denny Gioia talks about being part of the engineering team and experiencing the launch of Apollo 11 at Kennedy Space Center on July 16, 1969.

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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.
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