Apollo 11 moon landing at 30: My father brought the heavens to the world

This story was published on July 20, 1999. 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.

The moon beckoned my father long before I was aware anything could touch him. It’s that way between father and son. He worked, I played. He talked, I listened. I didn’t know he dreamed.

Not that he didn’t tell me. I still see him, years ago, settling back in his chair at the dining room table, stirring his coffee, spilling it from cup into saucer and completely oblivious to my mother clearing the table.

“Wouldn’t it be great,” he said, grabbing a piece of homemade bread from a basket, “wouldn’t it be just great when they land on the moon, to watch it on television?”

I was at the other end of the table, my usual spot, and sat up a little, wondering why he said “when” and not “if.” This was the fall of 1964, I was 10 years old, just old enough to begin to understand some of the things my dad talked about.

“Can you imagine that?” and gave me one of his piercing, lock- eyebrows-together stares. Usually, it was the look that made me confess sins I was only planning to commit, but he broke it off and looked for a butter knife.

This was a nightly ritual. My father never seemed to notice that his knife had long been cleared. He lifted his spoon, flipped it around and knifed the stick of butter with its handle. He applied it to his bread, making his own personal cloud of crumbs. He was oblivious to those, too.

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Stan Lebar holds a model of the Westinghouse Lunar TV camera which allowed the world to see Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon on July 20, 1969. Courtesy of Stanley Lebar

“Just think about that,” he continued, in between bites and sips and crumbs. “Watching the first steps on the moon, watching at home on your TV. You’d be watching Columbus making his first steps in a new world. The whole world would watch.”

He was going to put a TV camera on the moon, he said. Five years later – 30 years ago today – Stan Lebar did, and it was his one small part of the moon landing, a part that reported history and made history as well, a pretty hefty achievement for this small guy with the heavy-duty eyebrows and the knack for looking at a spoon and seeing a knife.

He was the program manager of the Westinghouse Lunar TV camera, which my family has always referred to as “Dad’s camera.” He was in charge of the project that brought the world those grainy black-and-white images of Neil Armstrong. My family sees those pop up on TV now and we always say something idiotic like “hey, there’s Dad’s camera.” Like we’ve discovered it for the first time.

That may be because over the years our appreciation of his contribution has grown. Lists of the top news stories of the 20th century often rank the moon landing in the top 10. The camera, and by extension, my father, was the foreign correspondent. My dad on Sunday spoke at the museum devoted to news – the Newseum in Arlington, Va. – about the camera and how it affected the world of news and information. My dad, the engineer-philosopher-dreamer, has become a spokesman about the changing world of journalism. After all these years, we’re speaking the same language.

I can’t say that was the case during the after-dinner conversation so many years ago. Afterward, I walked outside, looked down the hill from our split-level house, surveying the Maryland trees. My parents, Stanley and Elaine Lebar, had charted their own pioneering course in their lives, arriving here from the New York-New Jersey area to raise their three kids in a beachfront community near Baltimore. He worked at the Westinghouse plant near the airport, then simply called Friendship (now BWI). I played in the summers, swimming in the Severn River or building rafts and, in the winters, I waited for the river to freeze so I could skate to the spots where the rafts sank. It was a gorgeous place.

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I took my dad’s challenge and I looked up and pondered the bare moon. I couldn’t imagine going there. And TV? Can’t happen. This was a different time. TV news crews carted around big, bulky film cameras. I couldn’t figure out how the Orioles or “The Flintstones” showed up on TV. Those were miracles.

“My father,” I thought, “is nuts.”

But I was a kid and couldn’t possibly know that the country had a plan. All I knew of the space program was rockets sort of flinging astronauts into space and letting them fall into the ocean. I couldn’t see that this was to be a rare moment in history when government, science, private enterprise, competition and the spirit of adventure would culminate with the Apollo 11 mission – one foot on another heavenly body, for the first time, to be logged in at 10:56 p.m. Eastern time one summer Sunday evening, July 20, 1969.

With 500 million or so people watching. On TV. Live. Because of a little 7-pound camera, full of advanced integrated circuitry and often described as looking like a bread pan. My dad often referred to it as “the little bugger.”

So I grew up in a strange brew of ’60s suburbia, the space program and a generally unformed sense of something momentous coming. As early as 1960, before he was even assigned to the project, he’d come home in the evening and work on our still unfinished house and muse about TV from the moon.

“Stanley, wouldn’t it be great to have a kitchen floor?” was pretty much my mother’s response. My mother, a pianist and teacher, was to devote the next decade to music and three bickering children. My father was often away, at the Cape or Houston.

Reporters would occasionally call. He seemed to like ABC’s Jules Bergman, even though he didn’t exactly describe him as a pleasant person. Bergman knew his stuff and my father admired that. My father gave him a lunar camera tie tack. “What am I supposed to do with this?” my father recalled him asking. “I told him to stick it in his forehead.” That was his version, anyway.

Most of my memories are a blur. My dad’s memory is sharp, like he’s replaying a mental videotape. He often describes this inner movie he watches.

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Naturally, he remembers the night of the moon landing vividly. He watched a big screen in Mission Control in Houston and waited for the compartment door on the LEM to drop open, the silver camera perched upside-down on it, giving the technical version of his locked-eyebrow stare. The image of the ladder appeared, my father watched it flip around, right-side up. And it worked.

“I knew it would work,” he always says. “Why wouldn’t it?”

That never seemed to be his concern. What were his concerns? I never really knew. He seemed to fight different battles. Annoyed astronauts who weren’t fond of their work being televised. NASA’s concerns that a camera would record failure. In the ‘60s, TV’s presence was not a given.

And after all that work, he wrestled to untangle his feelings. He was watching two things – people on the moon and TV images of people on the moon. They were both overwhelming. He left the room full of smoking, short-sleeved guys and found a small office and a monitor to watch his camera feed him the lunar excursion. By himself.

In a way, he missed one of the greatest two-and-a-half-hour TV shows ever, not seeing the network broadcasts of the event he essentially reported. His family almost missed it, too.

By ‘69, we were all pretty anxious. I was 15 then and pretty much straddling childhood and adolescence, consumed with the desire to be an adult (to wear my hair any way I wanted) and the fear of the same (to avoid getting drafted). I had watched my dad’s cameras work on other Apollo missions and marveled at his appearance with Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show.” At one huge party at our house, those who worked on the program gathered outside, marveled at the Maryland trees, got drunk and rolled down our hill. My father told me they were astronauts.

For some reason, we didn’t share his complete confidence.

On the night of the landing, the clouds blew in, the sky opened up and a nasty storm knocked out the power. The camera was going to work, but our TV didn’t.

My mother hit the phone. About 10 miles north, their friends, Jack and Judy Bauman, still had power. And off we went, piling into our ‘65 Dodge Dart, my mother navigating a road perilously named New Cut, getting to the Bauman’s on time to wait. There, they talked and wondered if Stanley’s camera would work. Good friends, they were. They had started a synagogue together and when Judy talked about Golda, I knew she was talking about her aunt, Golda Meir. I sat on the floor in front of the set and wondered if Golda was watching. Of course she was. The whole world would indeed watch.

And the image appeared. My heart raced for my dad, Walter Cronkite said “Wow,” and I remember nothing – nothing – but flashes of ethereal gray and ghostly pictures of history. I saw the TV, not the lunar walk. The little bugger worked.

It survived the 250-degree temperatures during the lunar day, the minus 300 at night. It transmitted in a very narrow bandwidth and used little power – reasons for the ghostly look. The camera, my dad would say over the years, could actually deliver high-quality pictures. And, in 1970, it (the color camera system) delivered my father and Westinghouse an Emmy for Outstanding Achievement in Coverage of a Special Event.

He placed the Emmy on our console TV in the family room, sort of like a bowling trophy from the NASA league. My friends, seeing it for the first time, were always properly impressed. Mark and Randi, my brother and sister, and I were always more impressed by the picture of my father at the awards ceremony standing next to Jill St. John in a see-through gown.

I’m sure he couldn’t wait for us to grow up to appreciate better what he had done. As I moved through the phases of life – college, job, marriage, kids – my father would remind me: “You want to make a dent. That’s what you’re here for, to change the world in some way, large or small.”

I entered newspapers, forcing my parents to subscribe to papers they didn’t get – and they generally subscribed to two or three already. My brother and sister are both doctors. “I am truly blessed,” my father likes to say. “I have two kids to take care of my health. And when that goes, I have another to write my obit.”

In the late ‘70s, because of contacts I had as a reporter, I was able to find out early the status of the last space program contract he bid on. His cameras had been on subsequent Apollo missions, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project and Skylab. The shuttle was up next. I found he hadn’t gotten it. I called and told him. His heart wasn’t set on it, but still. . . I stopped by later and waited for him in the family room, with his Emmy.

He walked in, patted me on the head. “I’m so sorry I made you do that,” he said and smiled.

He was on to his next project. And I eventually switched from news to features to become a TV critic. I’m not sure my father saw the importance of writing about, say, whether “Three’s Company” would survive a cast change.

“Why do you want to do that?” my father asked when I dropped by the house. “Wouldn’t you rather do hard news?”

And so we chatted, across from each other at the table, now in a dining room he remodeled by himself. He buttered his bread with a spoon, I talked, he listened – he turned out to be a good listener – about how TV shapes the world.

Every anniversary, the images appear and my father and I talk about the camera. The images would still stand out in a world now populated with TV cameras recording every news event and high school graduation. We take them down to see the Titanic and above a white Ford Bronco but haven’t quite soared as high as the moon again.

Thirty years have brought changes. And taken their toll. I look at the names that intersected his life. So many of them are gone. Jules Bergman died in 1987. His friend, Judy Bauman, in ‘92. “Not many of us left,” my father says.

A while ago, I was watching TV with my two daughters, in our split-level house on a hill facing Folsom Lake, 3,000 miles from where I grew up. We were giggling at an episode of “Futurama” in which the cartoon characters visit the site of the first lunar landing and see the LEM.

“OK, you kids are so smart – what’s wrong with that?” I asked and waited for them to tell me that the LEM shouldn’t be there.“Grandpa’s camera isn’t there,” they said in unison.

“Uh ... good answer,” I said.

I called my father to tell him this. He laughed. “Funny thing,” he said. “I always get asked that if we went back, and they turned on the camera, would it still work? Of course it would.. . . And you know what you would have seen? The LEM. The image was burned on the tube, so you would see that even though it isn’t there.”

We laughed about that. It’s that way between this father, this son. And it’s that way with his granddaughters. He is 74 now, retired and active. My kids are keeping up with him and my mother right now, visiting the house, now full of quaint moon memorabilia, where I grew up. My oldest daughter, who is the magical age of 15, informs me he still butters his bread with a spoon while he talks about the moon. He talks, she listens.

“I always thought that by now, in 30 years, we would have gone back and that would have been wonderful,” the dreamer says. “I thought I could have seen the camera work again.”

It beckons my father, still.

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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.