Thursday, January 28, 2010

Live from the moon, Part I

The Apollo XI flight to the moon was launched on July 16, 1969. (NASA photo)

A little background will help. AFTV-22 was, in official military-speak, Operating Location B of Detachment 3 of the 7122nd Support Squadron. That meant our station manager at Spangdahlem reported to the commander of Detachment 3, about 90 miles east of us near Kaiserslautern. The commander of Detachment 3 also ran the AFTV station at nearby Ramstein AB.

In 1968, the new officer in charge of Detachment 3 was Lieutenant Tom Scanlan. Tom brought a few unique qualities to his job. He had been a TV broadcast engineer in civilian life. He had also been an enlisted man, a staff sergeant, before becoming an officer.

As he had seen station executives do back in the States, he got to know his competition when he arrived in Germany. His interest in engineering also made him eager to visit German TV operations ARD and ZDF. It was then that he learned details about Eurovision's "Blue Line," which used microwave relays to network most of Europe's nations, including some behind the Iron Curtain.

Meanwhile ... in the late spring of 1969 GIs all over Europe were as fascinated as people back in the States by the prospect that, if all went well, an American would walk on the moon in July.

That enthusiasm, however, was tempered by the fact that we wouldn't see it on AFTV until a few days later, not until film could be flown in from the States. AFTV stations had no satellite capability.

Then came word that German authorities had okayed a plan for AFTV stations to use live pictures as they were broadcast on ARD and to use an English-language audio feed via short-wave from the States. That was an acceptable solution, but still not good. To rebroadcast the live ARD pictures, AFTV stations would have to aim a studio camera at a TV set receiving the ARD signal, thus creating a picture of a picture and further degrading what were expected to be low-quality NASA images from the moon. Complicating the plan was the fact that short-wave audio transmissions from the States were ... well ... marginal at times.

That wasn't good enough for Tom. He was an engineer. He would not be happy with less than the best video and audio. He was a former enlisted man, and he thought the troops deserved the best.

Tom asked around and found out that German-television engineers were, as he puts it, "just as 'geeked' over this looming worldwide event as we were."

Tom just couldn't stop thinking about that European microwave circuit -- the Blue Line he'd learned about during his get-acquainted meetings at ARD and ZDF. He called ARD and learned that the main Eurovision circuit ran right through a mountaintop repeater just 25 miles from Ramstein. Tom made a few more calls and sought permission from Eurovision to tap into its raw, live feed of satellite images from the States and NASA. The answer, he says, was, "Yes, indeed!"

He also arranged for a raw English-language audio feed via England and a backup plan to use BBC audio.

But how was he going to pay for all of this? And how would he manage to get the live signal from the mountaintop Blue Line repeater to Ramstein and then to the other American military television stations under his command? Spangdahlem's AFTV-22 had no microwave link to Ramstein.

And there was another problem. Tom had not shared his plan with those further up the chain of command. He was operating on his own, a risky business when you're in uniform.

But Tom and his staff plowed ahead. His AFTV stations would carry the best signal possible for the Apollo XI moon landing -- so the troops could see history in the making.

"We were off and running," he says.

In my next post, I'll tell the rest of the amazing story of how Lt. Tom Scanlan made it happen.

I am grateful to Tom Scanlan for the information and details he has recently provided to me about AFTV's live broadcast of the moon landing and its consequences. In his e-mails, he has answered my arcane questions with patience and good cheer.

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