Wednesday, July 25, 2018

NASA, University of Texas at Dallas Reveal Apollo 11 Behind-the-Scenes Audio

An example of the computer print-out of an audio track sheet of a 30-channel Apollo analog tape showing channel information of all tracks. Credit: NASA

NASA made history 49 years ago this month by landing two humans on the surface of the Moon and safely returning them to Earth, the culmination of a decade of blood, sweat, tears and technological innovation the likes of which had never been seen.

Much of the world listened to the first Earth-Moon conversation at 4:18 p.m. EDT July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed the lunar module Eagle with just 30 seconds of fuel remaining. Armstrong radioed "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed." In Houston, Mission Control erupted in celebration as the tension broke, and capsule communicator (CAPCOM) and future moonwalker Charlie Duke offered the retort: "You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue, we're breathing again." (› Play Audio)

But the untold story of that momentous 8-day, 3-hour, mission by Armstrong, Aldrin and Michael Collins was the round-the-clock support provided by Mission Control and many communications and support locations around the globe. The intrepid trio of space explorers lifted off 9:32 a.m. July 16, 1969, from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, landed on the moon July 20, lifted off again at 1:54 p.m. July 21, and splashed down at 12:50 p.m. July 24 in the Pacific Ocean.

Hundreds of audio conversations between the flight controllers and other teams supporting the mission were going on every minute of the mission over an intricate intercom system. Multipurpose support rooms (MPSRs) coordinated every technical, planning and management detail and decision with Mission Control and Apollo 11 flight directors Clifford Charlesworth, Gerry Griffin, Gene Kranz and Glynn Lunney.

The conversations occurred over what are called communications “loops.” The air-to-ground loops between the Apollo 11 crew and Mission Control were released to the news media and public as they happened as NASA fulfilled its responsibility to share its work with the American public.

Until now, however, the recordings of those myriad “backroom loops” where individual experts discussed the details of their systems, and sometimes the details of their lives, have been locked away in special climate-controlled vaults.

NASA’s Johnson Space Center has the only functional remaining tape recorder capable of playing those approximately 170 remaining tapes. But the time and effort of converting them to current digital formats was daunting, and required the tape deck to be modified from being able to handle two-channels at a time to handle the 30 channels on the historic tapes. But through a collaborative effort with The University of Texas at Dallas (UT Dallas), the conversion finally has been completed, and the unique perspective of those at the core of supporting humankind’s “giant leap” is available to download and listen to all 19,000 hours of audio recordings:

NASA Collection:

UT Dallas Collection:

“We’re approaching the 50th anniversary of Apollo, and I’m really pleased that this resource is becoming available,” said JSC Director Mark Geyer. “Experience is one of the best teachers, so as we continue our work to expand human exploration of our solar system, go back to the Moon and on to Mars, we stand on the shoulders of the giants who made Apollo happen. These tapes offer a unique glimpse into what it takes to make history and what it will take to make the future.”

“The effort,” said John H.L. Hansen, principal investigator for the effort, is a way “to contribute to recognizing the countless scientists, engineers, and specialists who worked behind the scenes of the Apollo program to make this a success. These are truly the “heroes behind the heroes” of Apollo-11!”

Researchers at the Center for Robust Speech Systems (CRSS) in the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science (ECS) received a National Science Foundation grant in 2012 to develop speech-processing techniques to reconstruct and transform the massive archive of audio into Explore Apollo, a website that provides public access to the materials. The project, in collaboration with the University of Maryland, included audio from all of Apollo 11 and most of the Apollo 13, Apollo 1 and Gemini 8 missions.

In addition to the life-and-death drama as the lunar module Eagle’s computer systems threatened to abort the landing, the conversations also provide insight into the “humans in the loop” that made Apollo possible, including many humorous moments. Hansen noted one spot in the tapes where two NASA flight controllers are working with Buzz Aldrin because for some reason the sensor which measures his breathing is not operating properly. In the audio spot – they explore a number of reasons, ask questions, and maybe 10-15 minutes go by. Finally Buzz, in his own sense of humor, tells the NASA staff – “well, if I stop breathing, I’ll be sure to let you know!”

In one example, Aldrin bemoans that fact that so much of the Earth’s surface is water and asks if Mission Control can do anything about it:

In another, the flight controller responsible for putting video on the large screens on the front wall of Mission Control offers a channel where flight controllers could view black and white video at their consoles, and is told by Flight Director Gene Kranz that those consoles are to be used for looking at data:

Greg Wiseman, the project’s lead audio engineer for NASA Johnson’s Communications and Public Affairs Office, said the project began late 2013 and was completed early 2018. That may seem a long time, but considering that there more than two years of audiotape to digitize, it belies the challenges that had to be overcome both with the historic audiotape record, which required special environmental storage conditions for preservation, and special procedures for replaying the tapes without damaging them or destroying the historic assets. He added that Johnson’s Audio Control Room, continued to support International Space Station operations, news briefings and other productions while collaborating on the Apollo digital conversions Teamwork, he said, and contributions from volunteers and students made the accomplishment possible.

“It was a such a daunting task, so many challenges, so many problems to solve,” Wiseman said, made possible by the many people “who cared about the preservation of history and finding a way to release this to the public.”

Wiseman commended Hansen for pushing the project forward and using his “brilliant” team of engineers to develop a recording system, process the files, create transcripts and find funding for the project., and recognized the contributions of retiree volunteers, NASA’s Export Control Office and archivists at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) “who went into a deep dark vault and came back with all of these tapes.”

None of the original 30-track audio tapes had been completely digitized before. The first major engineering task was to refurbish the more than 45-year-old SoundScriber two-track audio play-back system to support 30-track playback. The team had to design, install, and test the new 30-track head at NASA that could replay all 30-track audio tape channels simultaneously and set up a 30-channel digitization system pipeline.

Because much of the tapes documented the silence between conversations, the team had to develop a system to identify when conversations were beginning and ending and an active learning system for creating accurate transcripts of the conversations. The team also developed a “hot-spot detection” system to track speaker sentiment, using things such as laughter, to gain insights into behavior and cohesion of the astronauts and support team in Mission Control, and a web-based, interactive Apollo mission life-cycle interaction module aimed at helping younger users understand the highly technical content of many conversations.

In addition to the 19,000 hours of digitized audio, the team produced corresponding transcripts of every conversation, and linked them to the database of digital audio. This enabled development of metadata that will help researchers comb through the hours and hours of audio to find the conversations most important to their area of interest of particular projects.

While the 19,000 hours of tape data from Apollo 11 are a significant accomplishment that will provide greatly improved access to that mission, they represent only 25 percent of the audio record for all of Project Apollo. The rest -- which still remain to be digitized and transcribed -- cover the early Apollo test flights in orbit around the Earth, the two test missions that sent Apollo 8 around the Moon in December 1968, put Apollo 10 in orbit around the Moon in May of 1969, the five later Apollo missions that landed on the Moon, and the “successful failure” that saw Apollo 13 crippled by an oxygen tank explosion and required Mission Control to use all of the innovation it could muster to bring the crew of three home safely to Earth.

The project’s specific goals included development of new techniques for robust acoustic processing of noisy channels, finding ways to identify when conversations begin in the midst of long sections of silence, accommodating speech pattern variations, improving transcript quality, developing “sniffing” techniques to automatically characterize the surrounding acoustic environments of Mission Control areas and spacecraft, and developing a new way to identity and track individual speakers by topics and keywords, the speaker’s state of mind and noise from surrounding environments.

“We have demonstrated the impact of these techniques by creating a novel multi-source and multi-scale event reconstruction system,” Hansen said. “This project brings together the massive multimedia archives of one of the best documented events in all of human history, the Apollo lunar missions, to create experiential interaction with historical materials so rich that they will in some ways exceed what could have been experienced by any participant at the time.”

The NASA team involved in the project included the efforts of a dozen people in JSC’s External Relations Office, and the team at UT Dallas included a dozen researchers and developers, many of them students and graduate assistants.

This new collection is a testament to the men and women of NASA, its contractors and supporters worldwide that played a role in one of the most important achievements in human history.

So far, most of those people are identified only by the “call signs” for the disciplines they represented in these digitized recording and transcripts. But this record of their accomplishments and sacrifices as individuals and team members represents a legacy for those who will accomplish similar great achievements with newer technologies that someday likely will need to be recovered by historians of the future who look back and wonder at how so much was accomplished with what, by today’s standards was the technological equivalent of stone knives and bearskins.

Credit: NASA


  1. The "Buzz Turn The Earth A Little" is no longer available?

  2. Very Informative article. Definitely this is one of the informative article about Reveal Apollo-11 mission. I am very appreciated to NASA university for Reveal the audio scenes of Apollo-11 Mission. I have learn very important point of this mission in this article. So I would say thank you to the author for sharing this valuable article. By the way I am a writer and professional blogger. I have been works in this sector more than seven years. Here is my Wikipedia page teknolojia. Actually I am working as a freelance writer at freelancing marketplace and I am delivering my writing service in globally in there. I love my profession.

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