Last night I attended the Apollo 11 Lunar TV Camera Reunion held at the Historical Electronics Museum in Linthicum, MD near the Baltimore-Washington International (BWI) airport. It was a wonderful evening and well worth the rush hour drive.
Press releases said the event was open to the public. I called the museum to confirm and was invited to come on down. Arriving about 40 minutes prior to the program I was surprised to discover a buffet spread featuring two of my favorite food groups -- prime rib and cheesecake. The open bar was a real thirst slaker and an excellent ice breaker.
The museum has moved since the last time I paid a visit in the late 1980's. At that time it was at a cramped location on Elkridge Landing Road several blocks from it's current greatly expanded site.
The evening was led by Stan Lebar, program manager for the lunar TV camera. The camera was built by a team of engineers from Westinghouse Electric Corp. that is now part of the Electronic Systems Division of Northrop Grumman.
The camera weighed only 7.5 lbs and ran on 7 Watts -- approximately the same power as the bulb in one of those electric candles you see in windows around Christmas time. Unlike the standard 30 frame-per-second TV rate the lunar camera operated at just 10 fps.
The conversion from 10 to 30 fps was blamed for the fuzzy images observed by millions of television viewers world wide. As evidence Stan projected a slide of a scan from a Polaroid image taken of the screen on the camera's monitor during the Apollo 11 moonwalk. It was crisp and sharp.
The monitor in turn has only a 10" B&W screen. During the talk team members performed a demonstration by activating a vintage Apollo lunar surface camera unflown flight unit and its ground equipment monitor. The camera was pointed at a screen on which an image of Buzz Aldrin climbing down the LM ladder was projected. It was an image taken by Neil Armstrong using the lunar surface Hasselblad film camera.
The TV camera was designed to work in both lunar day and night. I think he said that in full sun it operated at F60. To demonstrate the low light level capability the slide projector's lamp was dimmed until it was no longer visible to the human eye at all on the screen. Yet on the monitor the descending astronaut could still be clearly seen.
To prove that it was not an after image or trick two members of the team took turns standing in front of the slide projector. Their shadows projected onto the screen was clearly visible on the monitor.
The camera in the demonstration was said to be 38 years old. Built to be highly reliable with a Mean Time Between Failures (MTBF) of 30 years the camera was still performing above its specs 36 years beyond its expected useful life!
Quite a few secrets were revealed -- some of which were being heard for the first time by other members of the team. The team developed a color version of the camera using some sort of war chest or secret IR&D slush fund.
One of the most vigorous supporters of the color camera developed by the team was astronaut Tom Stafford (Gemini 6, Gemini 9, Apollo 10, and ASTP). According to Mr. Lebar following a late night demonstration of the color camera Stafford transported it to the pad in the middle of the night where he instructed a technician to test the camera and its monitor and then to stow it. That's how color TV came to space.
But on Apollo 11 they didn't want to take chances and used the tried and true B&W camera on the lunar surface. The camera was mounted on the door of the Modular Equipment Storage Assembly (MESA).
Since the top was the camera's only flat surface it was mounted to the door of the MESA. Thus, when the door was opened the camera was upside down. This is why the image of Armstrong coming down the ladder was initially upside down. This was corrected with the throwing of a switch on the ground. When the camera was removed and placed on its tripod the switch had to be thrown back to keep the image right side up.
Although Westinghouse had an apparent lock on the space TV camera market, NASA bowed to pressure from Westinghouse's main rival RCA and requested that both companies come to Houston for a demonstration of their respective TV cameras. RCA was pioneering color television in the 1960's and so their team called themselves the "rainbow team."
When NASA asked Lebar what name the team from Westinghouse would go by, he replied the "Furcat team." Apparently one of the NASA typists decoded the underlying secret behind the name when she noticed that the acronym for "RCA Team" was embedded in the word furcat.
Westinghouse won the competition that day. However, RCA did manage to get the contract for the lunar surface cameras which were mounted on the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) for the 'J' missions (Apollos 15 through 17).
One low point was mentioned several times. That was on Apollo 12 when LMP Alan Bean (Apollo 12 and Skylab 2) accidentlly pointed the camera at the sun and burned out the camera. That's the bad news. The good news was that when the camera was brought back to earth to be studied it was discovered that it wasn't ruined after all. Apparently switching operating modes would have corrected the problem. However, the camera had no external controls.
Although I don't recall seeing them, parts from the color TV camera flown to the moon's surface on Apollo 12 were supposed to be on display last night. I did see a color lunar surface TV camera on display but I assume that it was another unflown flight unit and not the one used on Apollo 12.
On the bright side the team received an Academy Award for their work. The statuette was on display at the museum. It was the first time I have ever seen one of those up close.
When the program concluded they distributed photo folders with an 8x10 image of the lunar surface camera. I presume the image was one of those taken by Armstrong.
I bumped into a friend that works at Northrop-Grumman. He took me around and introduced me to several retired engineeers who were present including a few of the TV camera team members.
Luckily I was carrying a black sharpie in my shirt pocket and four of the six persons that spoke graciously signed my souvenir:
I want to thank Robert Pearlman for the heads up on this event. If it wasn't for up to date news and sightings information posted on collectSPACE opportunities like these would be missed.
- Stan Lebar -- Program Manager
- Lenny Svenson - Engineering Manager
- Harry Smith - (not sure what his title was)
- Aris Melissaratos - (current Maryland State Secretary of Business and Economic Development)