Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Moon retrospectives’ editing steals glory of the achievement

The 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 and the death of Walter Cronkite made for a busy week of news, but many of the retrospectives were ruined by the editing of the landing of Apollo 11 and the walk on the moon.

I suppose the most egregious mistakes were made by New York Times columnist Alessandra Stanley, who changed the date of Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon to July 26, 1969, instead of July 20, 1969. Of course, the media is dominated now by people born long after that first step, so it’s not uncommon to hear about how Apollo 10 landed on the moon (NPR) and how the “Lunar Rover Snoopy” (sic) got to touch down on the surface.

After I and hundreds of others sent letters to NPR, the host issued a correction, but I bet the damage was done.

Most of the documentaries about Apollo 11 featured some of the weirdest tapes I have ever seen, as well as some pretty deceptive editing in of films from other missions.

I know it’s dangerous to use Wikipedia as a source, but since this is for my blog and not a news story, I feel it’s safe to quote from Wikipedia here about the “separation” and “staging” shots that were shown in the retrospectives.

Documentaries often use footage of a Saturn V launch, and one of the most used pieces shows the interstage between the first and second stages falling away. This footage is usually mistakenly attributed to the Apollo 11 mission, when it was actually filmed on the flights of Apollo 4 and Apollo 6.

A compilation of original NASA footage shows the jettisoning of the first stage (S-IC) and the interstage ring as seen from the bottom of the second stage (S-II), followed by the separation of the S-IVB third stage as seen from the top of the S-II. The hot, invisible hydrogen-oxygen flames of the J-2 engines on the S-II can be seen impinging on the S-IC and the ring. The S-II/S-IVB separation footage shows S-IVB ignition, and both films show the more conspicuous plumes of the solid lower stage retrorockets and upper stage ullage motors as they pull the stages apart.

The cameras filmed at high speeds causing an estimated 15 times slow-motion view of the sequence when seen in a documentary. The camera capsules were jettisoned soon after the first stage separation, and, though at about 200,000 feet in altitude, were still below orbital velocity. They then reentered the atmosphere and parachuted to the ocean, where they floated waiting for recovery. Only one of the two S-II cameras on Apollo 6 was recovered; the other was lost due to a problem with its locator beacon.

Another launch shot often attributed to Apollo 11 and other launches was shot on this day: it shows a view of the rocket lifting up, positioned relatively close up and dead center. The shot can be identified as Apollo 6 by examining the Apollo service module on the launch; Apollo 6 was the only Saturn V-launched Apollo craft with a white SM; all others were silver.

One of the weirdest films shown – and one I had never seen before – is the traditional “astronaut’s family gathers around the TV shot.” It was in a retrospective for Apollo 8, and while Jim Lovell was talking, there was a shot of what I suppose was his house. It shows how things have changed for the better in what happens. A woman with short blonde hair, in the foreground (Lovells’ wife?) sticks a cigarette in her mouth, then turns her head to look at the TV, then lights the cigarette, inhales, exhales smoke and looks back at the TV (with the cigarette still in her mouth), while in the background the kids don’t look all that thrilled. Granted, in late 1968 probably more than 70 percent of adults smoked (I may be wrong here) but my memories from that time indicate that at some parties, you needed to file an IFR flight plan if you were a fly in a room.

Launches are the most creatively edited, with swing arms swinging away, and then being magically back in position depending on the shot. Indeed, some of the tapes are run out of order. There’s always stirring music, and an audio track of white noise added while the tape is run in slow motion. I guess it’s my taste, but I prefer the real thing in a launch in a documentary, not multiple shots of Apollo 4, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 and 17. And no, as mentioned above, there was no live shot (as there is today of the space shuttle) of the launches from the top of the spacecraft.

This may come as a shock to many people, but there was not a TV camera showing the landing of the Lunar Module Eagle on the moon. We did not get a “live” shot of that. Oh, you reply, but there’s the descent film and the audio. Well, here’s the deal. The Lunar Module had a sequence camera mounted to point out a window. Soon after Apollo 11 returned to Earth, the camera’s film was developed and shown on the evening news.

Later, an audio track was added. Here is the word from a more credible source than Wikipedia, the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal.

The sequence camera was pointing out Buzz Aldrin’s right-hand lunar module window. It ran at 6 frames per second for the landing and was fitted with a 10mm wide-angle lens. The clip runs approximately from 50,000 feet altitude to the lunar surface, from about 102:30:45 to 102:46:38, one minute after touchdown.

Initially, the lunar module windows faced down towards the surface to allow Armstrong to perform visual landmark tracking. The spacecraft then rotated 180 degress to a windows-up position at an altitude of 40,000 feet to allow the landing radar to take altitude readings of the surface. The window view was of black sky during this orientation until they reached 33,500 feet when the moon slowly reappeared at the bottom of the window, just after the first 1202 program alarm announcement. Following the pitchover manoeuvre at about 7,000 feet, the moon climbed higher into view as the lunar module tilted to a more vertical position for landing.

Surface detail became clearer below 500 feet and boulders were visible as Neil flew level looking for a clear landing site. As touchdown approached, East Crater passed 150 feet below them, the descent engine blew dust across the ground, and the shadow of the landing gear appeared. As the spacecraft dropped the last few feet, its shadow filled the camera frame, blacking out the surface. The blowing dust cleared within seconds of touchdown: this phenomenon is observable in the small slice of the surface visible in the camera frame above the lunar module shadow.

The soundtrack includes:

• Lunar module descent engine ignition for powered descent initiation at around 46,000 feet

• Losses of voice communication and data telemetry

• Recurring computer alarms

• Landing radar dropouts

• Low fuel warning light in the lunar module

• Two verbal low fuel warnings from mission control

• Contact light announcement

• The landing announcement, and mission control’s enormous relief

The voices are mainly those of Buzz Aldrin and capcom Charlie Duke.

Armstrong, Collins, and public affairs officer Douglas Ward are also heard occasionally.

In the documentaries, the audio track is usually truncated and only the last few seconds of the descent is shown.

The lifting off of the ascent stage of the Lunar Module was recorded on the sequence camera, and the shot that’s usually shown in any case is the one from Apollo 14’s sequence camera since it shows the flag blowing outward from the blast of the engine. Also, white noise appears to have been added to some documentaries. (I guess they figure people won’t get it unless there’s a “whoosh” sound.”)

I guess I’m a bit of a stickler for facts, and that’s why a lot of people think I’m a drudge, but I think accuracy is key to avoid giving people incorrect facts. If you don’t agree, sue me.

Among the films showed on TCM was “Marooned.” I was always a great admirer of Martin Caidin’s writing, but I never really liked “Marooned.” Still, I sat through it recently.

The film, made in 1969, tells the story of Ironman 1, a mission to a Skylab-like space station, and what happens when the service module engine fails as they attempt to do a deorbit burn.

The fun begins with the launch, because the service tower, which surrounds the Saturn V rocket, magically disappears after being in place up to 15 seconds before launch. The launch shows, for a brief moment, a Command Module without an escape tower. Also, as the Internet Movie Database entry for the film notes in its goofs section, you’d just need the smaller Saturn 1B rocket for those missions. (Apollo 7 went to orbit atop a Saturn 1B, as did the Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz missions.)

Also, the astronauts are told to stand by for a “10-count,” which of course is nonsensical. Believe me, they’d know when there was 10 seconds left.

I suppose the most cringe-worthy part of “Marooned” are the scenes where they are getting ready for the deorbit burn, and two of the actors playing flight controllers do a countdown, loudly and in perfect unison: “10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0 – Retrofire!” In fact, they do it twice (and both times the engine fails to fire), and then again at the end after the two surviving astronauts are rescued by the XRV. I would have demanded to speak to my agent if I were those actors. Why did two have to do it at once? Why not something like, “On my mark, Retrofire!”?

I guess they needed to build suspense.

Now there are people who would say that I shouldn’t be so critical, but it’s just in me to want things to be right. Maybe I’m nuts.

But when I do astronomy stuff, I avoid giving out bad information – and admit when I don’t know an answer. I’d expect the producers of documentaries to respect their audiences and not splice tapes and edit them to appear to show events that did not happen.

The missions to the moon were grand adventures, and I just want people to know the real story.


July 25, 2009 - Posted by | Living in the modern age, Observations with Vinny | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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