Saturday, January 30, 2010

Live from the moon, Part II

(NASA photo)

The prospects for live satellite coverage of the moon landing were looking good. Lieutenant Tom Scanlan, the top dog at AFTV's Ramstein and Spangdahlem operations, had carte blanche to tap into the Eurovision microwave feed of Apollo XI coverage from NASA and the States. And Eurovision waived the fee. But he still had two major problems. How was he going to get the microwave signal from the mountaintop repeater at Donnersburg to Ramstein? He'd need a 25-mile link that didn't exist.

And he still had not told his bosses what he planned to do.

The first problem was easily solved, although the solution would bend a few more regs. Tom and his staff put together a list of all of the NCO and Officers clubs at bases and posts in the Ramstein and Spangdahlem coverage areas. "Salesmen" from the stations called on them and asked for money to pay for a microwave link to Eurovision. In return, they agreed that AFTV would run "commercials" for the clubs during cutaways from the Apollo XI coverage. The clubs knew a good deal when they saw one, and Tom quickly had the money to pay Deutsche Bundespost for the equipment to receive Donnersburg's Eurovision signal.

Ramstein would then send the signal on to Spangdahlem, using for the first time a three-hop military microwave system that was in the final stages of construction.

On the day before our first Apollo XI telecast, engineers from Deutsche Bundespost showed up at Ramstein with a mobile crane. They aligned a microwave receiver with Donnersburg. Within a few minutes, AFTV Ramstein had a clean signal from Eurovision. Soon, Ramstein fed the signal to AFTV Spangdahlem, where we let out a cheer in the control room. For the first time ever, we had a live picture from the outside world on a monitor in our master control.

On July 20, AFTV's live Apollo XI coverage began on its stations at Ramstein and Spangdahlem and on the repeater at Wiesbaden Air Base. Ramstein packaged the coverage, but during breaks the individual stations cut away from the ad hoc network and broadcast their own spots for local NCO and Officers clubs. At Spangdahlem, we stayed fully staffed in the control room and in the announce booth to handle live cutaways. Given the intense interest in this "experiment," there was no shortage of volunteers.

What our viewers saw on July 20 and 21 was wall-to-wall coverage.

Depending on what the Eurovision pool director decided at any given time, we saw familiar American faces: CBS coverage with Walter Cronkite and former astronaut Wally Schirra, ABC coverage with Jules Bergman, and NBC coverage with John Chancellor and David Brinkley. Our transitory network aired every morsel of coverage that was available.

At 3:39 Central European Time on the morning of July 21, Neil Armstrong began his descent from the lunar module Eagle, down a short ladder to the moon's surface. Tension in the crowded control room at Spangdahlem was acute. At 3:56 a.m., Armstrong's foot touched the lunar surface and he delivered his "one small step" speech. The pictures were fuzzy. The audio was scratchy. But we were broadcasting live from the moon! In the Spangdahlem control room, we all started cheering and grinning at each other. Tom tells me that in the Ramstein control room, grown men in uniform had tears streaming down their faces.

The Apollo XI mission was a success, and so was Tom's sub rosa network.

As dawn broke, a few of us from the station walked over to the NCO Club looking for a cup of coffee. The place was still full of people watching AFTV's coverage. When the crowd recognized us from TV, genuine applause broke out, and strangers shook our hands.

Later that day, the stations at Spangdahlem and Ramstein were deluged with congratulatory phone calls. Tom fielded inquiries from German and American news organizations about his one-off Apollo XI network. He also took calls from 1-, 2-, 3-, and 4-star generals who expressed their heartfelt thanks -- and their surprise and even amazement that a live broadcast had been arranged from "back home," let alone by those eccentric Air Force TV guys.

AFTV Germany had captured the hill in military broadcasting.

Early on, as he was setting up his secret network, Tom decided that it would be easier to seek forgiveness afterwards than to seek permission in advance. As it turned out, he didn't even have to ask for mercy. "Not once -- not one single time -- did anyone, anywhere, at anytime, ever question what we did, how we did it, why we did it, or on whose authority we did it," he told me in a recent e-mail.

Forty years later, we take live satellite broadcasts for granted. But in 1969, AFTV Germany did something no other AFRTS TV station had ever done. The dam broke. Within months, AFRTS headquarters was providing satellite feeds of the World Series and the Super Bowl. Today, satellite feeds to U.S. military stations overseas are commonplace.

But ... the big moon-landing broadcast was the last major event of my AFTV career. Five months later, my tour in Germany was over, and I headed home.

Six months after that, the Spangdahlem studios were shut down and the staff was dispersed to other locations. The Spangdahlem transmitter became a repeater for programming out of Ramstein.

And local live shows from AFTV-22 were no more.

John David Wild, AFTV's "Wild Child," e-mailed a further update after I posted the story above. Here's what he wrote: "Tom Scanlan went on to a civilian career in broadcasting, opening TV stations in the U.P. of Michigan. Those successes included men from his AFTV days. Tom remained in the USAF Reserves, retiring at the rank of Lt. Colonel. A Prince among men, he was a King amongst military broadcast leaders."


  1. Great stuff! Great story! I wonder of you'd like to do a post telling your readers who never knew, and those readers, like me, whose addled brains have forgotten, the meaning of some of the military jargon. Ex: Tom had been an enlisted man, now he's an officer. What does that mean exactly? Are officers people who usually did NOT enlist? What's a non-com (non-commissioned officer)? What's a "commissioned officer," assuming there is such a thing? Why are there Officers' Clubs and NCO Clubs? Is there an enlisted man's club? What is that called? Why is there air? What's the meaning of life?

  2. The answer to your deeper question is "42." I hope this helps. :)