The History Of Live Pool Splashdown Coverage…Part 2A
Our friend Jodie Peeler has written a great three part story on this subject with lots of detail, linked video and photos that I am proud to present here. Unlike today, bringing live television pictures from a ship at sea was a whole new ballgame and in this series, we’ll learn how it was done. More details on the photos, so click on all included this this post. Thank You Jodie! Bobby Ellerbee
Live color transmission from the recovery ship finally became a reality in October 1968, with live pictures of the Apollo 7 recovery from the recovery carrier, USS Essex. A joint effort by General Electric and Western Union International resulted in a more portable earth station, with a deployable dish. Once unfolded, it was shielded from the elements by a 22-foot inflatable radome. The big white dome became a familiar sight on recovery ships throughout the days of Apollo.
Apollo 7’s splashdown in the Atlantic, where most Gemini flights had ended, gave the new system its first trial in familiar territory, but the recovery of Apollo 8 in December 1968 provided the challenge of getting pictures from far off in the Pacific Ocean, where all the lunar flights would come back. Some difficulties were encountered early in the Apollo 8 splashdown coverage – the ship’s powerful radar units didn’t get along with some radio and satellite equipment, and the signal was lost a few times – but on December 27, 1968 viewers were able to watch live as the Apollo 8 astronauts ended man’s first flight around the Moon as they emerged from the recovery helicopter aboard USS Yorktown.
Portable cameras allowed viewers a close-up look as the astronauts went from the flight deck to the hangar deck below.
With Apollo 8’s lessons learned, and further refinements during the Apollo 9 and Apollo 10 recovery efforts, all was in place for the historic Apollo 11 recovery by USS Hornet on July 24, 1969. Increased cooperation among the Navy, GE/WUI, and the networks meant coverage went better and with minimal technical glitches. Viewers were able to watch live pictures from Hornet: the recovery efforts, the astronauts landing aboard and going into their quarantine van, and the welcome-home ceremony in which President Nixon, aboard the ship to witness the historic moment, gave the astronauts an official welcome.
Although live coverage from the recovery ships continued through the remainder of the Apollo program, interest peaked with Apollo 11 and steadily dwindled, with the dramatic return of Apollo 13 (also carried live via satellite) the exception. Apollo became an old story, and the networks cut back on their coverage. By 1972 CBS News president Dick Salant was balking at the $200,000 or so it would cost to carry live coverage of the splashdown of Apollo 17, the final lunar mission (and in spite of his protest, CBS did carry the splashdown live). Still, the historic moments of Apollo had been carried from start to finish, and the world had been able to see its lunar explorers return home safely.
Here’s a Western Union International commercial, aired during the flight of Apollo 11, describing the terminal system and showing it being deployed:
There’s also a ton of Apollo coverage on YouTube, and it’s not hard to find – honestly, I wouldn’t know where to begin. (The Apollo 7 coverage doesn’t seem to exist, at least not on YouTube, alas – but the CBS coverage of the Apollo 8 splashdown exists pretty much in its entirety, and Apollo 11’s coverage may be found in both ABC and NBC formats.)