Video engineers capture the Giant Leap with 239,000-mile ‘camera cable’
Television had to be part of the lunar mission. But how to get live video of the event back to Earth and a global television audience?
Remember, this was the decade of the 1960s, when broadcast gear was big— switchers and microwave links were stuffed full of vacuum tubes, video recording was done on 2-inch tape and cameras had heads weighing hundreds of pounds and were backed by CCUs and support electronics that ate heavily into rack space.
WESTINGHOUSE GETS THE NOD
In the 1960s, there wasn’t much shopping around to be done in terms of professional video cameras. The two recognized suppliers were General Electric and RCA. However, neither had, nor was planning to make, any sort of really small and lightweight camera.
This is where Westinghouse Electric and one Stanley Lebar entered the picture. Westinghouse supplied a lot of battle-hardened electronic gear to the Pentagon, including some small black and white television cameras for use on ships and helicopters. Westinghouse also had something that many companies didn’t at the time—a facility for fabricating custom integrated circuits solely for use by the company.
And to make the hand even more attractive, Westinghouse technology had created a very special television camera pickup tube, one that could run circles around conventional image orthicons and vidicons in terms of size, sensitivity, S/N and lag. This was the secondary electron conduction, or SEC, tube. It had an outstanding dynamic range and was so sensitive that, without stretching the truth too much, it could make pictures of the proverbial black cat in a coal bin at midnight.
These facts weren’t wasted on the small group of NASA officials who were promoting video from space on the Apollo missions, and in particular the planned manned lunar landing. If a compact, reliable and high performance camera were to be constructed, it would need a tube such as the SEC, along with a customized chip set to drive it.
“We had all of the building blocks that they were looking for at the time,” said Lebar, who would be tapped to head up the Westinghouse camera program for the Apollo missions. “NASA concluded that we were the only company that could do it.”
Lebar said that under the contract that was hammered out, Westinghouse had to initially deliver 10 camera engineering models.
And the space camera couldn’t be just reverse-engineered from existing circuitry either. Other NASA specs spelled out the impossibility of using 525-line, 60-field video.
The Westinghouse camera
“They told us that we had only 500 kilohertz of bandwidth for video,” Lebar said. “This limited us to 320 lines and 10 frames per second with no interlace.
“Also, the camera had to have an environmental range of from plus 300 degrees to minus 250 degrees Fahrenheit. The specs covered every environmental aspect that the LEM (lunar excursion module) and moon surface would see.”
Lebar and his team soon set to work on designing the unusual camera, but found the NASA specs, especially those defining video performance to be extremely confining.
“Several managers commented up front that ‘this was a dog,’” Lebar said. “Ten frames per second and 500 kilohertz of bandwidth don’t make good images. We were fighting for at least an additional 250 kilohertz And you have to remember that that standards conversion technology was very primitive then; we had to convert this 320-line, 10 fps video to something that the networks could broadcast. RCA made an image converter to work with a camera they had—it was basically a 525 camera shooting a CRT displaying slow-scan video images. Not the best quality.”
With such a contrivance being the state-of-the-art for standards conversion, Lebar and his team knew that every fraction of a dB in camera S/N performance was precious.
“When we built the camera, we went to extreme lengths to keep the noise down to an absolute minimum,” he said. “We knew that a lot of noise would be added in the optical conversion and in relaying the video around the world from the tracking stations.”
The Westinghouse team did deliver a workable camera in time to be used on some of the Apollo missions leading up to the one now planned for July 1969; the one that would actually put a man on the surface of the moon.
However, early that year, it seemed that the camera might not be a part of that trip after all.
Stan Lebar with his handiwork
“George Lowe, who was head of the Apollo program, called a meeting to decide if we really should fly a camera to the moon or not,” Lebar said. “It was a big meeting—all the sub-system people were there, and all of the astronauts. However, the old timers made it know that this was not the case—that NASA shouldn’t miss the opportunity to televise the mission.”
Lebar remembered that it was really mission commander, Neil Armstrong, who cinched the deal. Armstrong ruled the roost and stated that he wanted the camera aboard. That was that. There would be live video.
Lebar recalled that NASA insisted on an automatic light control system— something unheard of then in live broadcast cameras. Also there was a lot of concern about the 8 kV that the SEC tube needed. Arcing was feared to be a major concern in the high vacuum conditions encountered on the moon. Special alloys had to be developed for use in connectors exposed to vacuum conditions too.
A special group of Westinghouse employees—all women—were selected to assemble the cameras going aboard the spacecraft.
“We even brought in a psychiatrist to help in selection of the people used to build the cameras,” Lebar said. “We chose six top people for the job—one camera per person. This was so that one person made every decision involving construction of the camera. The women treated the cameras like they were their own children.”
Lebar, meanwhile, had been informed by Westinghouse management that if the camera failed for any reason, he would be the one to stand in front of the cameras and reporters and explain to the world why there was no video.
“And I didn’t really want to have to do that,” Lebar said.
The Westinghouse camera at work
LIVE FROM THE MOON
Lebar waited out the evening of July 20, 1969, in a lab at the Houston Manned Spacecraft Center or MSC (now the Johnson Space Center). Video gear had been set up for monitoring the moon “remote.”
The order was given to power up the camera, and Lebar crossed his fingers and rubbed his rabbit’s foot once more. “The camera was on the (landing module’s) ‘porch’ looking out at the ladder and was in total darkness, so there was no video,” Lebar said. “Armstrong had to pull a ‘D’ ring to open the door. About two seconds after the turn-on command was given, I saw a sync pulse on the monitor and thought ‘it looks like it’s going to work.’”
However, the video that was making its way across 239,000 miles of space and several thousand more of terrestrial linkage was far from perfect.
“The image was bad, very dark,” said Lebar. “Someone at the [Goldstone, Calif.] tracking station was adjusting the [scan] converter. The image actually went negative for a while.”
Lebar found out later that the Goldstone video technician was new to the job and had never operated the optical converter before that evening.
“He just turned every knob he could and then froze up,” said Lebar.
(Actually the first images reaching terrestrial television viewers were inverted top-to-bottom, as the camera was initially resting upside down. Its top plate was the only flat surface and this was the way the camera rested until Armstrong removed it and began to carry it by the pole-type handle on its underside. The inversion was correctible by flipping a switch on the converter.)
“Someone said that they were getting a better picture from the Parkes tracking station in Australia [actually a radio telescope installation],” Lebar said. “We switched over to Parkes and never went back to Goldstone.”
Due to the primitive image conversion technology, contrast was blocked up and a lot of noise was added to the picture; so much so that the images took on a ghostly, ethereal look, quite different from the video being pumped out from the ABC, CBS and NBC studios in New York that evening. However, this seemed to fit correctly into the scheme of things.
“The comment was made then that if it the video had looked like the live television everyone was used to, no one would have believed that it was coming from the moon,” said Lebar.
Even after 40 years, Lebar says that he still hasn’t been able to completely sort out his emotions from that very special evening.
“I just know that I never want to go through this again.”
What else does Lebar remember from that evening of evenings?
“There was an all-night party at the King’s Inn motel near the MSC,” he said. “Westinghouse took over the cocktail lounge at the motel for the celebration, with champagne being served all night long. At seven in the morning they fed breakfast to anyone still standing.”