Half a decade after landing on the moon

The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing is getting a lot of deserved attention, and there is a lot of media coverage and documentaries. Even in just the past ten years, a lot of great items have shown up in various media forms.

I was not quite seven when my aunt took me to a pool party thrown by a group of her friends, and I remember all of us gathering around the (small by today's standards) TV to watch Neil Armstrong step off the Lunar Excursion Module, becoming the first human to leave a footprint on the surface of the moon. I wasn't old enough to fully appreciate what was happening but knew it was a big deal.

Being of the right age, I was very excited about anything space-related. One of my favorite places to go was the Griffith Observatory. I had a small telescope which I used to look at celestial objects (and sometimes jets as they flew overhead). I had an intricate model of the Saturn V, even though I wasn't really into assembling models. Naturally, I was really excited when a group of scouts went to the Rockwell International plant (it was in Downey, where I grew up, and was featured in a New York Times article) and we saw some of the recovered capsules and renderings for what would become the Space Shuttle.

At the bottom of this post are photos I took in the Saturn V exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center in 2000. I haven't been to the Destination Moon exhibit at the Museum of Flight (done in partnership with the Smithsonian), but plan to make it before it closes.

So I would naturally have a predisposition to follow all of the retrospectives about the moon program (not to mention the various current-day NASA missions). Here are a few of my favorites from recent years.


While I thought First Man was an interesting look at the personal side of Neil Armstrong, I thought Apollo 11 was more compelling, especially since it was made from original footage taken before and during the mission. The narration in the film (what would be exposition in a drama) comes from reporting done during newscasts, mostly from Walter Cronkite. My favorite scene in the film was footage taken by Michael Collins while the upper stage of the LEM was approaching the command module; it's a leisurely view of the moon and a growing speck. The visual impact echoes a David Lean movie, but the emotional impact is even greater, knowing that those two astronauts were returning from the frying pan of landing on the moon to the fryer with a maneuver which was well-practiced but still dangerous.

Another documentary I greatly enjoyed was Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo. Knowing that the controllers who were interviewed did such a stressful job a half-century ago makes it even more evident just how young they were. They were each shown in the restored Mission Control in Houston (accomplished, along with the documentary, via a Kickstarter campaign), presumably at their stations; seeing them sitting there was more moving than I expected.


There is one standout podcast reliving the story of Apollo 11, 13 Minutes to the Moon. All the episodes are highly detailed and filled with interviews. There are many angles which are just starting to get more recognition, including just how young many of the members of Mission Control were, and telling Michael Collins' story as he was orbiting the moon while Armstrong and Aldrin were on their journey. The title of the podcast comes from the time it took for the LEM to do its powered descent to the lunar surface, and while parts of the thirteen minutes are covered in each of the episodes, later episodes take you all the way through, culminating in listening to Charlie Duke's feed in real-time; you can feel the tension and relief, and it's amazing just how quickly things happened.

There's a video of the complete Apollo 11 descent which follows multiple feeds with transcripts in addition to animating altitude and pitch. It also shows video from a camera mounted on the LEM. Of course, it highlights the error codes. There is a lot going on which makes it hard to take everything in, at least with one viewing. Having listened to 13 Minutes to the Moon, however, a lot more of it makes sense than I would have expected with everything going on.


There was one episode of 13 Minutes to the Moon which focused on the 1201 and 1202 alarms which occurred during the landing, and it was also covered in the documentaries. Are Technica had a detailed article about the errors which goes into even more detail. One can only come away amazed at the engineering that went into the Apollo Guidance Computer, especially since it was created with extreme constraints to be used in a before-unknown environment, and had to work perfectly. Even though it couldn't handle everything that was going on, it correctly prioritized its tasks and got the job done.

Being a photographer, an NPR article about the Hasselblad cameras which took pictures in space and on the moon was an obvious read. It all started when Wally Schirra decided to use the 500C on the recommendation of photographers from Life and National Geographic. Being a medium-format camera with first-class glass, the photos were guaranteed to be superb. Even so, the cameras were modified for use in space, such as fixing the magazine so it wouldn't accidentally fall off (Hasselblad made a high-capacity back and Kodak invented a thinner emulsion so 160 color or 200 B&W shots were available). NASA realized that it was hard to distinguish the astronauts while on the moon, so they added red stripes to the captain's suit and helmet. And those crosshairs you see on lunar photographs? They were intentional to help with registration and scale. NASA has a page dedicated to the cameras.

With all the focus on Armstrong, there are relatively few photos of him out on the moon. He carried the primary camera, while Buzz Aldrin had specific assignments for what to photograph, but Aldrin did manage to capture Armstrong in one photo. Armstrong did catch himself in Aldrin's faceplate reflection, but the result was a pretty small figure.

The New York Times assembled a lot of the photographs into an interactive article which shows the pictures in context of the mission. Very well done.