Why the Apollo images were so ghostly

The TV images we saw of the Apollo astronauts on the moon had a ghostly, grainy look. That poor quality lent support to the beliefs of some people that the moon landings were faked though the reasoning escapes me. If the video was filmed on a secret Hollywood soundstage by Stanley Kubrick, as some allege, then surely NASA could have shelled out a few extra bucks to make a better quality product? (I never quite understood why people would believe something so bizarre. Why would NASA and the top people in the US government cook up such a story?)

Amy Shira Teitel explains why those videos had that look. It was because the video equipment that the astronauts took along had to be made portable enough to be taken in their tiny landing module.

A standard broadcast frame has 525 lines, so each frame is broken into two fields with 262.5 lines each, which also means the 30 frames a second becomes 60 fields a second when you’re interlacing the image. The beam fills in all the odd numbered lines first and then returns to the top to fill in the even numbered lines. It’s a process called interlacing — two fields of video are put together to create one frame. Another electrical pulse in the beam ensures the two fields are properly interlaced with one field coming in a half line after the other, and it all happens so fast our brains just see a clean image.

But the Apollo astronauts could only take a stripped down system to the moon.

For simplicity’s sake, Apollo 11 used black and white cameras, which had the added benefit of using less bandwidth when the signal was sent from the Moon to the Earth. The camera had one imaging tube that scanned at just 10 frames a second with 320 lines per frame. There was no interlacing.

To get something that could be played on TVs on Earth, technicians had to fill in the missing data.

This was a two-stage process. First, another vidicon camera was set up facing a TV screen showing the lunar footage. This camera recorded the video at a rate of 60 fields per second but only when there was a full image on the screen. This meant that the converted image video had a full image every tenth of a second. Only one out of every six fields contained an image. So the next step was replacing the missing five fields. To do this, the good frame was recorded onto a magnetic disk then replayed five times. This yielded the necessary 60 fields per second for the 262.5 lines, the same as 30 frames per second of the full frame of 525 lines. The signal was ready for broadcast around the world via radio dishes, the same way TV was always broadcast at the time. The repetition of frames, however, give the footage that super low quality, ghostly look.

So there you have it. Not that this is going to convince the skeptics of course. Teitel is probably just a mouthpiece for the conspiracy.


  1. EigenSprocketUK says

    The other factor is that the NASA’s terrestrial signals (NTSC telecines of the lunar broadcasts) were often re-recorded back to tape by other broadcasting organisations, so quite likely we see a third (or even fourth) generation copy. Some of these may be more available to broadcasters than the original NASA telecines, so adding to the loss in quality. Some tapes also show the smearing effect from the vidicon tubes.
    Just to add more insult to the image, some copies will have yet more degradation from further telecine to different frame rates (eg 50 field systems like PAL and SECAM) used elsewhere in the world. And maybe back again. It’s a miracle of technology that they’re watchable at all.

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