What Apollo 11 Astronauts Did Right Before Neil Armstrong Set Foot on the Moon


I've been plowing through some old Apollo materials looking for references to the earth stations that were receiving the satellite transmissions from the crew on the moon. In so doing, I came across this long version of the lead-up to Armstrong's famous quote as he stepped onto the lunar surface. The transcript and video of the moments right before one of the most widely replayed film snippets in history records Buzz Aldrin setting up the shot. He asks NASA for the correct f-stop for the camera while Armstrong tests the lunar regolith. This is the behind-the-scenes footage of one of the more glorious achievements in human history.

Aldrin: You've got a good picture, huh?
Houston: There's a great deal of contrast in it, and currently, it's upside-down on our monitor, but we can make out a fair amount of detail.
Aldrin: Will you verify the position - the opening I ought to have on the camera?
Houston: Stand by.
[Armstrong begins to descend.]
Houston: We can see you coming down the ladder now.
Armstrong: Okay, I just checked getting back up to that first step, Buzz. It's -- not even collapsed too far, but it's adequate to get back up... It takes a pretty good little jump.
Houston: Buzz, this is Houston. F/2 - 1/160th second for shadow photography on the sequence camera.
Aldrin: Okay.
Armstrong: I'm at the foot of the ladder. The [Lunar Module] footpads are only depressed in the surface about 1 or 2 inches, although the surface appears to be very fine grained as you get close to it. It's almost like a powder. Down there, it's very fine. I'm going to step off the [Lunar Module] now. THAT'S ONE SMALL STEP FOR MAN, ONE GIANT LEAP FOR MANKIND.

All that transmission flew through space to two tracking stations in Australia, Honeysuckle Creek and Parkes, as well as Goldstone in the Mojave Desert.* It's a bit complicated, but the broadcast appears to have begun with the feed from Goldstone, switched to Honeysuckle Creek right before Armstrong set foot on the moon, and then drew on Parkes after a few minutes. The Australian site at Honeysuckle Creek rebroadcast the feed up to an Intelsat III satellite perched over the Pacific, which relayed it down to a newly constructed earth station in the tiny town of Jamesburg in the hills of Monterey, California, which sent it on to mission control in Houston and the rest of the world.

* I originally listed Goldstone as being in the Australian desert. It is not. It's in California.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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