4.4 Media misdirection

From today’s privileged viewpoint of free Internet access to the entire archive of Moon landing photographs, video and film footage and technical documentation, anywhere and anytime, it’s easy to forget that there were no live TV transmissions from the Apollo spacecraft during the lunar module’s descent to the surface of the Moon, so most media outlets covered the first Moon landing by showing artist’s renderings of the event.

For Walter Cronkite’s famous live TV coverage of the Apollo 11 landing, CBS showed a rather crude animation which was timed to match the scheduled timetable of the landing but went confusingly out of sync when Neil Armstrong delayed the actual touchdown to find a safe landing spot. Cronkite, however, correctly announced “We’re home. Man on the Moon!” and exclaimed his famous “Oh, boy!” after Armstrong had radioed that the LM had landed.

Figure 4.4-1. Recording of the CBS live coverage of the Apollo 11 landing, showing the animation used to describe the events.

These renderings and animations were dramatically effective but often quite inaccurate in their artistic license and created misleading expectations in the public. For example, they almost invariably depicted visible stars and a bright, fiery exhaust plume from the LM’s descent engine, although in actual fact the stars would be too faint to see against the glare of the daylit lunar surface, and the LM engine plume was colorless and essentially invisible in the vacuum of space.

Aesthetics took precedence over scientific accuracy, and the visible exhaust was also a very convenient visual shorthand to explain how the spidery spacecraft could fly and hover in a vacuum. The same inaccuracy occurs in many NASA illustrations.

Moreover, the quality of the images published at the time by many newspapers and magazines was misleading. TV screenshots were blurry, with very few details. Film footage lost its sharpness during transfer to TV recording formats. Photographs fared better, but were still severely degraded by many steps of analog duplication, which lost details and exaggerated contrast. All this was fertile ground for anyone who wanted to argue that the images were fake and that the blur hid wires or other special effects.