In her debut novel The Moon in the Water (2009), Lankan author Ameena Hussein uses a memorable line to describe her protagonist’s many dilemmas: “Her generation had the burden of being the link between the old world and the new. Between pre-man in the moon and post. Between letters and email.”
I’m as much a part of that in-between generation as her character Khadeeja. Rather than being a burden, however, I find it an extremely privileged vantage point to have been. There will never be another generation like ours that straddled two worlds…
For many of us who experienced it, the Apollo 11 ‘Moon shot’ will be among our most indelible memories. Among the various labels I can choose from those tumultuous times, I consider myself a Child of Apollo.
And the boyish, blue-eyed Neil Armstrong (already 39 when he went to the Moon) was my first hero.
These are excerpts from my personalised tribute to Armstrong, who signed off for good on 25 August 2012. In it, I reflect on how the first Moon Landing influenced me personally at the tender age of 3, and recall the very different times in which we lived our lives on the other side of the planet from where Apollo missions were taking off.
It’s a light-hearted, nostalgic and essentially personal tribute, not at all an academic or polemical discussion of the Cold War politics that inspired the Great Space Race. But I do touch on what it meant to be part of history’s first Big Media Moment that was shared in real time by 600 million TV viewers and another few dozen million radio listeners worldwide.
If Neil was originally a hero to me for riding atop the world’s greatest fireworks machine and taking that Giant Leap for Mankind, he is a hero for me now for what he chose to do with his life upon his return.
O voyagers, O seamen,
You who came to port, and you whose bodies
Will suffer the trial and judgement of the sea,
Or whatever event, this is your real destination.”
So Krishna, as when he admonished Arjuna
On the field of battle.
Not fare well,
But fare forward, voyagers.
This is the Sinhala text of my Ravaya newspaper column published on 11 March 2012. Today I write about How Sri Lanka Missed the Moon. I wrote an English article in July 2009 covering the same ground, but this is NOT a translation. I don’t do translations.
This is one of history’s most famous photographs – and also one that is frequently misidentified. The man behind the space mask is a pioneer Moon walker – but it’s not Neil Armstrong. It’s the Buzz Aldrin, the second Man on the Moon.
According to space historians, all the famous photos from the first Moon landing are actually of Aldrin, with Armstrong reflected in the visor. This is an occupational hazard for those who take photos!
Buzz, who celebrated his 80th birthday on January 20, remains active and publicly engaged as he has been for most of the past 40 years since the first Moon landing in July 1969.
I’m following Buzz on his Twitter feed, from which I find that he’s just back from a trip to Antarctica with a National Geographic cruise, was at the premiere for the movie Avatar in mid December, and is now busy promoting his latest autobiography, Magnificent Desolation.
This contrasts with Neil Armstrong, who is notoriously shy. He rarely speaks in public, turns down all media interviews and has also refused autograph requests since 1994.
Trained as an engineer, the two-time space traveller Buzz has been keeping up with new media pretty well. He has his own website, and launched his own YouTube channel only a month ago, where we can see his latest broadcast and film appearances. Through these and other means, he continues to promote causes like space exploration, science education and nurturing imagination.
To mark his 80th birthday, we present some of the many Buzz Aldrin videos available online.
Here’s the DVD Promo Overview of the latest Buzz video:
On the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 crew landing on the moon, former astronaut Buzz Aldrin shares his experience and predicts where man will go in the future. (Assciated Press video, 20 July 2009)
Buzz has long years of close association with popular culture. For example, the popular space ranger character Buzz Lightyear, in Pixar’s Toy Story movie series, is named after him. Apparently the film’s makers felt that he has “the coolest name of any astronaut.”
NASA video: Follow Buzz Lightyear on Spaceship Discovery
Finally, for comic relief, here’s the 2003 interview Buzz did with Ali G (Sacha Baron Cohen) in the British comedy series Ali G in da USA, during which Ali G referred to him as Buzz Lightyear:
Everyone would welcome a quality improvement in those murky, grainy moving images capturing humanity’s grand achievement. But the choice of Lowry Corporation, best known for restoring old Hollywood films, could fuel the fire of conspiracy theorists who argue that the entire Moon landing was faked by NASA with the connivance and participation of Hollywood. They believe that the entire Apollo programme – that landed people on the moon six times between 1969 and 1972 – was staged on a movie set or secret military base.
This link didn’t bother Richard Nafzger, the NASA engineer who oversaw television processing at the ground-tracking sites during the Apollo 11 mission, and now involved in their restoration. “This company is restoring historic video. It mattered not to me where the company was from,” Nafzger was quoted as saying.
Technically and officially, NASA is right. The US space agency has always dismissed the conspiracy theorists, and not spent much time discussing the outrageous idea. As it says on NASA website: “The Apollo Moon landings were among the most completely documented and observed events in history. Moon rocks have been examined by scientists from all over the world, not just the U.S. Video special effects were in their infancy in the late 60’s so that faking a landing on the Moon would probably have been more difficult than actually going there, and it seems highly unlikely that the hundreds or even thousands of people who would have had to be involved in such a conspiracy would have kept it a secret for so long.”
Independent scientists point out that it would be impossible for tens of thousands of NASA employees and Apollo contractors to keep such a whopping secret for almost four decades. Tell that to those who are deeply suspicious of anything to do with governments, who historically don’t have the best record for transparency and full disclosure!
So the conspiracy theory lingers. Like many other crazy ‘theories’, it has spread rapidly with the growth of the Internet. It’s really an old one: even at the time Apollo astronauts landed on the Moon, a few people refused to believe it as it apparently conflicted with their religious beliefs.
The Moon Hoax, as it’s popularly called, accuses NASA of manufacturing, destroying, or tampering with evidence — including photos, telemetry tapes, transmissions, and rock samples; and that the deception continues to this day. These theorists concede that the Apollo launches did take place. But instead of going to the Moon, which they say was technologically impossible at the time, the astronauts just orbited the Earth for a few days while NASA carefully fed the media with manufactured images. And then they returned to a heroes’ welcome!
My curiosity in conspiracy theories stems from my interest in popular culture. In this instance, I’m intrigued to note how moving images have fuelled the Moon Hoax theory in a number of ways. A cornerstone in the doubters’ argument is that NASA’s photos and videos from the moon contained ‘suspicious anomalies’ (all of which, by the way, have been satisfactorily explained by scientists.)
Some believe that these theories inspired the 1978 movie Capricorn One, where NASA fakes a Mars landing on a military base on Earth, and then goes to desperate lengths to cover it up. It’s entirely possible that some people can’t discern fact from fiction. Or why allow facts to get in the way of a damn good story?
At one point in the early 1990s, he wrote to the NASA Administrator, with his tongue firmly in his cheek, saying: “Dear Sir, On checking my records, I see that I have never received any payment for this work. Could you please look into this matter with some urgency? Otherwise, you will be hearing from my solicitors, Messrs Geldsnatch, Geldsnatch and Blubberclutch.”
And here’s another connection: Peter Hyams, who directed Capricorn One, went on to direct the movie adaptation of Arthur C Clarke’s 2010: Odyssey Two, which was released in 1984.
More seriously, in later years Sir Arthur was concerned that at one point a few years ago, millions of Americans harboured doubts whether the Moon landings actually took place. That indicated a failure of the education system to produce people with critical thinking abilities, he said.
The conspiracies received a boost when, on 15 February 2001, the Fox News TV network aired Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?. Hosted by X-Files actor Mitch Pileggi, this hour-long, sensational documentary peddled what it called eerie “inconsistencies” in NASA’s Apollo images and TV footage. Among them: no blast craters are visible under the landing modules; shadows intersect instead of running parallel, suggesting the presence of an unnatural light source; and a planted American flag appears to ripple in a breeze although there’s no wind on the moon.
It concluded that the whole Apollo Moon landings were faked in the Nevada desert because, cccording to the conspiracy theorists, NASA did not have the technical capability of going to the Moon, but pressure due to the Cold War with the Soviet Union forced them to fake it. Fox TV did preface the programme with a notice saying: “The following programme deals with a controversial subject. The theories expressed are not the only possible interpretation. Viewers are invited to make a judgement based on all available information.” But skeptics felt Fox didn’t do enough to provide a minimum level of balance in their discussion.
Rather than being a ‘true believer’, Fox TV may have been trying to boost its audience ratings. But others in the moving images industry apparently take the matter very seriously. Among them is the film-maker Bart Sibrel. His aggressive interview tactics once provoked astronaut Buzz Aldrin (second man to walk on the Moon) to punch him in the face in a 2002 encounter.
“I don’t want to call attention to the individuals who are trying to promote and shuffle off this hoax on people,” Aldrin told CNN in a recent interview. “I feel sorry for the gullible people who’re going to go along with them. I guess it’s just natural human reaction to want to be a part of ‘knowing something that somebody doesn’t know.’ But it’s misguided. It’s just a shame.”
One of the strongest rebuttals of the Moon hoax on TV has come from the Mythbusters series of popular science programmes produced by Beyond Television Productions, originally for the Discovery Channel. The series features special effects experts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, who use basic elements of the scientific method to test the validity of various rumors, myths, movie scenes, internet videos and news stories in popular culture.
In August 2008, they tackled a number of pervasive myths associated with the Moon landing, debunking them one by one. To film the episode, Adam, Jamie and the rest of the Mythbusters team visited the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. A team of Marshall scientists helped the Mythbusters with several of their tests. Here are two excerpts:
As the 40th anniversary of the first Moon landing passes, the scientific community and rationalists will have to make some hard choices. How much more time and energy must they expend countering such wildly fanciful theories and fantasies? In a world that still has a (dwindling?) number of people who believe in more ancient concepts like the Flat Earth theory, is it really surprising that the Space Age would inspire its own share of modern-day myths?
No matter what the scientists say and how overwhelming the evidence is, conspiracy theories will always believe what they want. Often their convictions border on a blind faith – and as Arthur C Clarke was fond of saying (in relation to religions), one definition of faith is ‘believing in what you know isn’t true!’.
NASA itself is well aware of this. “As the number of people who were not yet born at the time of the Apollo program increases, the number of questions [about the moon landings] also may increase,” NASA said in a statement on the eve of the anniversary. “Conspiracy theories are always difficult to refute because of the impossibility of proving a negative.”
Perhaps what the Moon Hoax debate really needs is what Sir Arthur Clarke once proposed as a response to the obsession with UFOs and alien abductions: a decade or so of benign neglect. Conspiracy theorists and myth-makers thrive on counter-arguments and debate. When they don’t get it for long enough, they’ll probably run out of steam.
Meanwhile, networks like Fox News should stick to making entertainment programming that is labeled as such. Who can find fault with creations like The Simpsons?
When Neil Armstrong took that first ‘small step’ on to the Moon, at 10.56 pm Eastern Standard Time on 20 July 1969, it was already 21 July in many other parts of the world. It didn’t matter: day or night, East or West, people all over followed the mission’s progress over TV or radio. As Armstrong climbed down the lunar module’s ladder, more than 750 million people back on Earth had collectively held their breath.
This event holds special significance for me personally. It’s the earliest childhood memory that I have which can be pinned down to a specific date. And what a date!
I was a little over three years old at the time (as I like to put it, I’m the same age as Star Trek!). The year 1969 was already the most eventful yet in my (very short) life: in April that year, a younger sister was born. And at the beginning of July, I started in pre-school. I should think that at least the ‘headlines’ of such key events would be imprinted in my (usually good and sharp) memory. But those events are buried deep beneath the sediments of memory, and I have to turn to secondary (parental) sources to get any details.
What I do remember, to this day, is the excitement over the first Moon landing. My father was listening to the live radio broadcast on Voice of America. Sri Lanka had no television broadcasts then (that medium would arrive only 10 years later), so the only choice was to tune in to radio and imagine the pictures….or wait for the next day’s newspapers.
The crackling shortwave transmission came in loud and (mostly) clear through the large radiogram that sat in a prominent corner of our spacious living room. At over three feet in height, and encased in neatly polished wood, the instrument must have appeared formidable to little me. That was our solitary window to the outside world.
Although I realised something pretty important was happening, I didn’t understand what the commentary said. English was still an alien language – heck, at that tender age, I was still picking my mother tongue! But the inquisitive brat that I was, I asked my father to give me occasional summaries of what was going on. His school teacher experience must have helped him to distill the essence for me.
After all these years, I can’t remember too many details. But the highlights linger on, if only as distant headlines. Neil Armstrong’s one small step was taken. Neil and Buzz hopped around like kangaroos, enjoying the lower lunar gravity. They planted the American flag and set up scientific instruments. Then collected lunar soil samples. They often talked as they worked. Mission Control closely followed their every move…as did the whole world, a quarter of a million miles away.
Then it was time to head back. I would later find out that leaving the Moon after two and a half hours of exploration was a particularly tensed moment in the mission. The astronauts had one chance to rejoin the ‘mother ship’ orbiting the Moon. If their lunar module failed to take off, they’d be marooned on the Moon — with absolutely no hope of a rescue.
Having spent just about 1,000 days on Earth myself, I had no clue about any of these dangers. But the one ‘tough’ question I still remember asking my father is: “What could happen if the astronauts can’t return?”
I’m not sure what answer, if any, he gave me. His background was in history and languages, not science. But that sure was an indication that I had the knack for asking difficult, sometimes irritating, questions.
In theory, it can happen to anyone recording moving images on tape or digital media: absent-mindedly or carelessly re-use the recording media, and thus lose the original content. If no copy exists, such an accident means an irrevocable loss.
But if the images were the most expensively shot in the whole of human history — literally costing billions of dollars and involving the genius and labour of half a million people over several years — we would expect these to be archived and preserved with great care, right?
Well, not necessarily — if the custodian is a government agency. On eve of the 40th anniversary of the first Moon landing by Apollo 11, the US space agency NASA dropped a bombshell: it admitted that the original recordings of that historic moment were accidentally erased years later.
One British newspaper called it “the scientific equivalent of recording an old episode of EastEnders over the prized video of your daughter’s wedding day”.
While the media rushed with oops-style headlines like ‘One giant blunder for mankind’, NASA quietly investigated what really happened. Last week, they revealed the hard truth: the tapes were part of a batch of 200,000 that were degaussed – or magnetically erased — and re-used. It was a standard money-saving measure at NASA in those pre-digital days to reuse the 14-inch tape reels after several years in storage. Agency officials fear that the original Apollo 11 tapes were buried among an estimated 350,000 that were recycled in the 1970s and 1980s and the data was lost for ever.
But the historic visuals are not entirely lost: luckily, broadcasters who used NASA’s expensively obtained footage had archived their transmissions for posterity. For many months, NASA has worked with a leading digital imaging company in Hollywood to restore good copies of the Apollo 11 broadcast found in the archives of CBS News and some recordings called kinescopes found in film vaults at Johnson Space Center.
On 16 July 2009, NASA released the first glimpses of a complete digital make-over of the original landing footage that looked decidedly sharper and clearer than the blurry and grainy images of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the Moon.
And we have to admit, the new video is definitely better than the ones we’ve seen for 40 years!
Raw Video: Restored Video of Apollo 11 Moonwalk
Another montage of digitally restored Apollo 11 mission highlights:
The full set of recordings, being cleaned up by Burbank, California-based Lowry Digital, are to be released in September 2009.
I had often wondered why the original images from the Moon were so grainy: it wasn’t typical even for that time. And if NASA spent between US$ 22 to 25 billion on landing men on the Moon, surely they’d have harnessed the best available technology to capture and share their moments of triumph, I assumed.
Actually, the video coverage that was broadcast around the world — to an estimated audience of 500 to 750 million people — and has since been endlessly redistributed was not quite what came from the Moon. It was a diluted version. Stanley Lebar, the NASA engineer in charge of developing the lunar camera, now calls a “bastardized” version of the actual footage.
Here is the “as-it-happened” broadcast from CBS News that day, with the legendary Walter Cronkite anchoring to the biggest TV audience the world had known. (Footnote: You’ll see the first electronic “character generators” in use.)
The story is technically complex, but here’s the essence: live images from the Moon couldn’t be fed directly to the American TV networks using the NTSC broadcast standard. Audiences worldwide would be holding their breath that a delayed broadcast, even by a few minutes, would not have been as effective as ‘live from the Moon’. Under such time pressures, no conversions could be attempted. So a regular TV camera was pointed at the huge wall monitor at mission control in Houston.
This is known as kinescope, or telerecording: a recording of a television program made by filming the picture from a video monitor. That resulted in the grayish, blotchy images that everyone saw on their home TV sets. In other words, It was a copy of a copy, with significant quality losses in that process!
A new documentary, released in January 2009, offers new insights into one of the most challenging feats in international live broadcasting – how those images from the Moon were delivered to TV audiences around the world. Produced by Spacecraft Films and directed by Mark Gray Live from the Moon: The Story of Apollo Television
It tells how for the first time in history millions of people could share, in real time, the experience of frontier exploration.
“Placing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth was hard enough in 1969,” says Gray. “‘Live From The Moon’ tells the story of how television, still a technological toddler, was developed for space flight, and examines the impact of the iconic passages that were returned.”
To tell that story, Gray literally circled the Earth, shooting interviews at the deep space communication stations in California and Australia, as well as at space facilities and museums in Houston, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Princeton, Kennedy Space Center, Huntsville, Ala., Washington, DC and Weatherford, Oklahoma.
Along the way, he interviewed astronauts, flight directors, mission controllers, tracking station operators, historians and those who built the television cameras for the space program…. “Live from the Moon” is told with the insight of moonwalker Alan Bean; Apollo 10 commander Tom Stafford; flight director Chris Kraft; Neil Mason, who drove the Parkes Telescope; Westinghouse camera team leader Stan Lebar; and the voice of mission control Jack King, among others.
“Every single one of them believed that the TV was one of the most important legacies of Apollo. And many of them admitted candidly that they didn’t give the TV much thought during the actual missions,” recalled Gray.
When Apollo 11 astronauts landed on the Moon 40 years ago this week, they were more than just Americans taking that historic first step on to another celestial body.
Yes, they planted the US flag there – after all, it was the American tax payers who financed the massive operation. But they left on the Moon other items that signified the universal nature of their mission.
One was a plaque (photo, above) saying “Here men from the Planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.” It bore the signature of the three astronauts –- Neil Armstrong, Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin, Jr., and Michael Collins –- and then US President Richard Nixon. Another was a golden olive branch.
These letters were received by NASA during the final weeks running up to the launch on 16 July 1969, yet this disc helped turn the Apollo 11 mission into an international endeavour.
It was only in June 1969 that the US State Department authorised NASA to solicit messages of goodwill from world leaders to be left on the Moon. This triggered a minor diplomatic frenzy, with invitations going out from Thomas O Paine, the NASA Administrator.
In all, 116 countries were contacted through their embassies in Washington DC, but only 73 responded in time. Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, responded. But for some unknown and unexplained reason, then Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake declined to send a message to the Moon.
When I first heard about it about 18 months ago, I was both intrigued and curious. Was it some misplaced geopolitical considerations, or simple diplomatic arrogance that led to Ceylon’s negative decision? After all these years, we might never find out.
I have now written this up in an article titled ‘How Sri Lanka Missed the Moon’, which appears this weekend in the mainstream media and online in two different versions.
The book documents the full story behind this little known facet of the very widely covered Apollo 11 mission. It also reproduces each of the 73 goodwill messages, as well as those which were received too late for inclusion on the disc.
“I was amazed at how NASA and the State Department rushed to get these messages before launch,” says Rahman. He took two months to locate from the Library of Congress the boxes in which NASA Administrator Paine had preserved the full correspondence.
While researching for this article, I contacted Rahman hoping for some additional insights, but he replied: “I do not have any information about why Sri Lanka did not send an Apollo 11 goodwill message.”
Sir Arthur C Clarke, with whom I worked for over 20 years, was also intrigued by Ceylon’s decision, which he didn’t know about until Rahman’s book reprinted the official letter. His only remark: “Mysterious are the ways governments think and work.”
Reading the messages, whose English translations are available online, is like entering a time capsule. Only two of the world leaders are still holding office (Queen Elizabeth II of Britain, and King of Thailand); most of them are dead. Some countries have since changed names. Others have been subsumed by neighbours, or broken into two or more independent states. Geopolitical map of the world has been completely redrawn.
The story of the Apollo 11 silicon disc is more a history and politics lesson, and less a science story. But I’m glad that I found a little known facet of the very widely covered Apollo missions to write about on its 40th anniversary.
Watch Tahir Rahman interviewed on Fox News network:
Exactly 40 years ago, on 16 July 1969, Apollo 11 blasted off carrying three American astronauts to the Moon. Four days later, history was made when Neil Armstrong and Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin, Jr., become the first human beings to set foot on another celestial body, while their colleague Michael Collins circled the Earth.
When Armstrong stepped on the Moon, he said: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind“. Man on the Moon was very much the news highlight of 1969, and at the time, the term ‘mankind’ was understood to include women as well. The more gender-neutral term ‘humankind’ would come into popular use some years later.
Beginning with Apollo 11, the Apollo programme landed a dozen astronauts on the Moon, all of who returned safely – as did the astronauts of the disaster-stricken mission, Apollo 13. Without exception, all of them were white and male. While they were all highly qualified, disciplined and trained men who had worked long and hard to earn their places in history, they did not fully represent the diversity of their nation, let along of the planet whose emissaries they were portrayed to be.
Women, celebrated across cultures as holding half the sky, took a long time to travel beyond the sky to outer space.
Although a Russian (Valentina Tereshkova) had become the first woman in space early on in 1963, it took the Americans another 20 years to have their first woman astronaut: Sally Ride, who traveled to Earth orbit on the Space Shuttle in June 1983.
A recent British documentary reveals how America could have sent a woman to the Moon during the Apollo programme. It reveals, belatedly, one of history’s great might-have-beens.
The film tells the astonishing story of the pilot and pioneer, Jerri Truhill, who was trained in 1961, as part of NASA’s top secret Mercury 13 programme, to become on of the first woman astronauts. The documentary is a lyrical journey propelled by childhood aspirations, shattered dreams and a lifelong battle against female sterotypes and male prejudice.
Truhill tells how the women outperformed men in all the training tests (including water tank isolation) but how ultimately, the authorities, with the approval of President Johnson, stipulated that they would “rather send monkeys into space than a woman”.
In the film, the tough talking and sharp witted Jerri Truhill looks back at her compelling life via a phone call with the film-maker. This conversation becomes the catalyst for the director’s imagining of key events in Truhill’s potent narrative and inspires a journey to meet the heroine in Texas. Along the way the film-maker places herself in Truhill’s story, first wandering across the surreal landscape of White Sands and then suspended in zero gravity inside a water tank.
Included are staged scenes, dreamt-up moments from Truhill’s story, which evoke the popular melodrama of 1950s American cinema. These fictional moments bridge the gaps of time and distance between the filmmaker and her subject. Their stylised and dreamlike quality is counterpointed by shots from both Truhill’s and NASA’s film archive. The various strands produce the film’s heady timeline, as they circle through real and imagined spaces, past and present.
Seven of the “Mercury 13” gathered at the Kennedy Space Center in 1995. In the photo below, from left to right, are: Gene Nora Jessen, Wally Funk, Jerrie Cobb, Jerri Truhill, Sarah Rutley, Myrtle Cagle and Bernice Steadman. They came to watch Eileen Collins become the first woman to pilot a space shuttle. NASA has come a long way.
As I wrote in May 2009, the path-breaking TV series Star Trek, which started airing on television in the US in September 1966, was way ahead of reality. When neither the mainstream television nor the space programme reflected America’s true diversity, Star Trek created a multi-ethnic crew for the Starship Enterprise, roaming the universe in the 23rd century. It included an African-American woman, a Scotsman, a Japanese American, and a super intelligent alien, the half-Vulcan Spock.
Reality took a long time catching up. It was only in August 1983 that Guion “Guy” Bluford, Jr., became the first black American astronaut. Another nine years passed before Dr. Mae Jemison became the first African-American woman to go to space, when she joined a Space Shuttle mission in September 1992. In fact, she cited Star Trek character Uhura as an influence in her decision to pursue a career in space.
Multi-cultural crews did not become commonplace until the late 1990s, when the International Space Station became operational. Space travel has yet to reach the utopian ideals of Star Trek.
Images related to ‘She should have gone to the Moon’ courtesy Ulrike Kubatta. Other images courtesy NASA