Book Review: Live TV From the Moon
A new book chronicles the greatest show on Earth—and off it
By Dwight Steven-Boniecki, Apogee Books, 2010; 248 pp. (plus DVD); US $25.95; ISBN: 9781-926592-16-9
If the moon landings of four decades ago had never been televised, would they have had the same impact? It’s doubtful. We may not want to admit it, but television made the Apollo missions historic. The funny thing is, those images might never have been seen at all. The NASA of the early 1960s considered television an annoying distraction from the serious science it was pursuing. It wanted no chance of failure for the big prize.
Eventually, agency planners saw the benefit of allowing the public to see what they were doing at every step. It led to broadcast television’s greatest moment: When Neil Armstrong stepped off the ladder of the lunar module on 20 July 1969, a specially built camera caught the first lunar footfall before the eyes of more than 500 million viewers worldwide.
Dwight Steven-Boniecki, an Australian TV researcher and space enthusiast, says his book, Live TV From the Moon, is the "only written work documenting the Apollo television systems." He presents a layman-friendly account of the rapid advances that enabled NASA to carry miniature cameras aboard its early space missions, including a corporate race between engineers at RCA and Westinghouse to capture the moon landings.
RCA scored first with a low-resolution black-and-white camera for the early Apollo flights, but Westinghouse zoomed ahead with a high-resolution monochrome model for later missions, including the Apollo 11 moonwalk. Further developments at both firms then produced lightweight electromechanical color cameras using old-fashioned spinning disks (along the lines of the old Goldmark color-TV scheme) for the final lunar treks.
Technical advances were only a part of the story. By the time the Apollo 8 crew celebrated its first-ever orbit of Earth’s companion by reading from the Book of Genesis on Christmas Eve, 1968, NASA knew its lunar TV shows were more than scientific marvels. They were fascinating entertainment, shining a glowing light on the space agency itself.
A supplementary DVD filled with interviews, slideshows, and rare video (including restored footage of the historic Apollo 11 moonwalk) rounds out this unique offering and makes it quite a bargain. Yet readers should note that the slim book is hardly a scholarly work, littered as it is with typos and even some outright bloopers, such as a reference to seven manned Mercury flights when there were only six.
Still, for those who can’t get enough of the lore surrounding the famous moon missions, this is a resource worth discovering—or just buy it for the DVD.
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About the Author
Kieron Murphy is a freelance contributor to IEEE Spectrum. In March he reviewed Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and the World He Made Up, by K.C. Cole, and in September Cosmic Noise: A History of Early Radio Astronomy, by Woodruff T. Sullivan III.