45 Years Ago Today…Apollo 11 Lands On The Moon: Day 6
Here is the sixth of eight daily articles written for Eyes Of A Generation by Jodie Peeler on this historic event, complete with videos. Enjoy and share!
In yesterday’s post, you saw the moment when ABC News covered the Apollo 11 lunar module Eagle’s touchdown on the Moon. If you paid close attention, maybe you noticed something funny about that moment. In fact, both ABC and CBS (and perhaps NBC, too) landed on the Moon before Armstrong and Aldrin! Here’s how it happened.
The networks’ production staffs had full access to the Apollo 11 flight plan, and had planned every aspect of the mission coverage down to the second. The networks thus knew when to start animation, when to cut to models, when to start special effects, and just about everything else. Had Apollo 11 gone exactly according to plan, it wouldn’t have been an issue.
But, spaceflight being no different than any other form of flight, sometimes things don’t go as you’d hoped. And live television being live television, audiences got to see the result.
What the networks didn’t know was that on final approach to the landing site, commander Neil Armstrong didn’t like what he saw out Eagle’s windows. He thus flew Eagle toward a more favorable landing site a short distance away, adding about 20 seconds to the flight time.
No one knew this in the New York studios; the steady hum of instrument readings from cool-voiced Buzz Aldrin, interspersed at times with the Southern accent of CAPCOM Charlie Duke in Houston, sounded like the kind of dry astro-talk they’d become used to. There was no indication anything irregular was going on. The animation and countdown clocks ticked on.
At the moment the flight plan called for lunar landing, CBS showed animation of the LM touching down and cut to a mockup of Eagle’s instrument panel. In the center of the screen was a large light marked LUNAR CONTACT. At the time called for in the flight plan, the light illuminated, and CBS cut to a model of Eagle on the Moon. Unfortunately, the instrument readings continued from Eagle. Tentatively, CBS played a camera on the LM mock-up sitting on the Moon, and the production team realized what was going on: CBS had landed on the Moon before Apollo 11.
Stomachs dropped in Studio 41’s control room. The camera held on the LM mock-up, with no caption on the screen, for what seemed like an eternal half-minute before Aldrin called “Contact light – okay, engine stop.”
Almost immediately and with palpable relief, CBS threw the caption LUNAR MODULE HAS LANDED ON MOON at the bottom of the screen.
Here’s the CBS coverage, starting about a minute before the planned moment of landing:
ABC, unfortunately, fared little better. Also sticking to the flight plan for its cues, ABC used a model of the LM, complete with a little flame shooting out the bottom to simulate the Descent Propulsion System, to depict Eagle’s descent to the Moon. Its model of Eagle, not as detailed as anything CBS was using, hovered in midair for the final minute, interspersed with shots from inside a mockup of the LM cabin with two “astronauts” aboard, before abruptly completing its descent.
At roughly the same moment CBS put Eagle on the Moon, ABC’s model touched down on its lunar surface and the DPS flame went out, and ABC cut to a mock-up instrument panel with a flashing LUNAR CONTACT light.
Eagle, of course, was still flying. There were a few awkward cuts between the interior mock-up and the model until, just in time for the “engine stop” call, the videotape of the model’s “landing” was racked and the little LM landed as Aldrin made the touchdown call.
Here’s how ABC handled it, starting a minute and a half before the flight plan called for touchdown:
The NBC footage of the moment of lunar landing has, unfortunately, not surfaced. If NBC stuck to the flight plan the way ABC and CBS did, then it’s likely all three scored the ultimate scoop on NASA.
The story of the CBS “landing” was a favorite tale of Walter Cronkite’s, who would say with a chuckle that CBS was on the Moon “twenty seconds before Neil Armstrong.” It’s yet another example of how breaking news and live television can make even the best-laid plans go awry.
Tomorrow: A look at how the television pictures got from space to the living room.