I’m worried about future generations and how they will know the past. It’s no secret I’ve become obsessed with chasing down my ancestors and stories of my own history, but my concern is not all self-centered. I want my nieces and nephews to know these people, and I worry about how technology outpaces and even leaves the past behind in ways we seem not to notice.
What happened to all the newspapers that were placed in the microfiche program? And now that microfiche is antique, the machines old and clunky, how will we read those old newspapers?
Where are the record players to listen to the original recordings of Bessie Smith and Jimmie Rodgers? And the music that was distributed only on CD…do you still own a CD player?
By nature, I’m a reader and a keeper of “things.” Several years ago, I read an intriguing article about man’s first visit to the moon. Someone got the idea that with all the advances we have made in videography, it might be fun to apply some of those techniques to the video of Neil Armstrong’s first steps in 1969.
“It’ll be fun,” they said. “We can bring out details that couldn’ t be seen in the original material. Let’s do it.”
If you are old enough to remember that blurred, slightly ghostly image of Armstrong stepping onto the lunar surface, you saw history happening in real-time. Based on today’s GoPro, cellphone, and dashcam video technology, the fact you were able to watch on TV that historic event as it happened, was a miracle.
I’m not going to get all technical on you in this short rant, but here’s a brief description of how you saw that event.
The lunar module had limited bandwidth to send audio, visual, and medical data back to Earth. Remember, this was 1969. Reel to reel tape decks were cutting edge technology.
Westinghouse developed a special camera that recorded video at an extremely slow rate of 10 frames per second to be transmitted back to Earth. Three tracking stations, two in Australia and one in California, would receive the signals and transfer the video to telemetry tapes, still at the 10 fps rate.
Television broadcasts at 30 fps, so the video couldn’t be broadcast directly to television stations. What you saw was the result of pointing a TV camera at a monitor displaying the non-standard transmission. The original image was of reasonably high quality, but what we saw on TV had traveled through space, hopped across microwave and satellite transmitters, was routed through Houston, …and filmed as it played on a computer monitor.
And that’s the simplified version of what you saw. So, yes — finding, viewing, and enhancing the original tapes could be fun and also educational.
Step one: finding them. Thus, began a treasure hunt of epic proportions. In 2006, NASA announced it was looking for over 700 boxes of magnetic data tapes that had been recorded during the Apollo program. They might be at Goddard Space Flight Center…or maybe not…maybe somewhere else.
Step two: viewing them. In 2006 when the hunt began, there was only one piece of equipment left that could play the specialized tapes. Only one. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I read that the outdated equipment had been designated for destruction. One machine was finally discovered pushed into a corner of an obscure warehouse and covered in dust.
Step three: enhancement. This is a little bit longer story. I watched the transmission of the first step on the moon, and as a writer and a word person, I heard Armstrong’s words this way, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” That’s what I heard, and that was such a poetically strong statement.
What most people heard, though, was, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” No one else seemed to hear that he was talking of himself as “a man” making a leap for mankind. Armstrong himself claimed to have said “a man,” but his words have gone down in history as most people heard them.
In 2006, both audio and video tapes were rediscovered and analyzed. Only then did experts admit that it was very plausible that the tiny word “a” might actually be there.
Peter Shann Ford, a computer programmer, analyzed the audio and found a 35-millisecond blip between “for” and “man,” which was just enough time for the spoken “a” to have been uttered.
I choose to believe I heard the statement as it was meant. That “a” changes the meaning of the statement ever so subtly. It makes more sense to me that a man might feel so tiny and so awestruck to be making such a leap for mankind that he would speak personally.
When we go looking for the past, we may not find what we’re looking for, but we often discover what we never expected. The Rolling Stones got it just about perfect: “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try, sometimes you just might find, you get what you need.”
Let’s never forget that while looking ahead is important, what’s in front of us is only there because of what we see when we look over our shoulder. It’s all part of the same picture.
And that’s why I want to meet the family that came before me.
If you are interested, here are a couple of links: