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Apollo 11: Listening to the landing

Helen Randle

BBC Archive

A clip from the BBC's Moon Special radio simulcast, which began on the evening of 20 July 1969. Presenter Arthur Garratt and studio guests Professor Lionel Wilson and Eric Burnett discuss Buzz Aldrin's re-entry to the lunar module. Source: BBC and NASA.

BBC Genome looks back at the nail-biting hours before the lunar module successfully landed on the surface of the Moon. Professor Lionel Wilson of Lancaster University was one of the broadcasters relaying the events as they happened, to a radio audience. 

On 21 July 1969 the world was watching as US astronaut Neil Armstrong descended from the Eagle lunar module and made his “small step” onto the surface of the Moon. It was a truly global television event. But not everyone was able to watch a television set, so BBC radio reported for listeners, explaining the events as well as listening to and relaying the conversations between the astronauts and mission control.

The Moon landing in July 1969 was the culmination of “the Space Race” between the US and the USSR. The Soviets had won the early stages, launching the first satellite in 1957, landing the first unmanned spacecraft on the surface of the Moon in 1959, and in 1961 sending the first cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, into space. A month later President John F Kennedy pledged that the US “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” NASA spent the next eight years aiming to achieve this goal. On 16 July 1969 Apollo 11 launched, carrying what would be the first men to set foot on the Moon.

Guiding radio listeners through the events of the Moon landing by Armstrong and Aldrin were presenters Arthur Garratt and Colin Riach with lunar experts including Eric Burnett, Dr Lionel Wilson and Dr Frederick Latham. Listening to the broadcast today, it’s difficult to disassociate the sounds and voices from the images which are so familiar to us now and to imagine what the experience of relying on the commentary and sound alone was like to listeners in 1969.

One of the experts in the BBC Radio studio that night was Dr Lionel Wilson, who got in touch with BBC Genome to tell us about his experiences. At the time Dr Wilson had recently completed his PhD and was continuing his research into the texture of the surface of the Moon. Previous Apollo missions had taken photos of the Moon’s surface in preparation for the landings, and Dr Wilson was one of the scientists who thought some of the shapes in these photos were lava flows. His specialist interest in the Moon’s landscape made him ideal to join the BBC’s team of experts for the Apollo 11 landing. While others were more familiar with the spacecraft and the technicalities of landing, Dr Wilson explains: “my job was to talk about what was happening on the surface”.

Professor Lionel Wilson pictured here (left) with presenter Patrick Moore on a Sky at Night broadcast in 1985

The BBC’s radio coverage of the Moon landing began at around the time the lunar module, containing Armstrong and Aldrin, undocked from the orbiter and began its descent towards the surface of the Moon, late on the evening of 20 July. It continued overnight, including the landing, moonwalk and ascent back to join the orbiter. In the end the broadcasters spent more than 24 hours in the studio as events unfolded.

“The way it was organised was that the exchanges between the astronauts and mission control were broadcast as they were happening,” says Dr Wilson. “We, the people in the studio, had headphones in which we could hear those exchanges. And then at any stage when there was a lull in proceedings we discussed what was going on and commented on it. […] We were reacting in real time to what was going on.” He recalls that they were working only with the audio which was being transmitted from NASA, but they had a good idea of what was due to happen and the sequence of events so they were able to describe to listeners what was happening without seeing the famous footage of the Moon landing.

Radio Times celebrated the Apollo 11 mission with this cover, published on 10 July 1969.

The atmosphere in the studio was a mixture of nervousness and excitement according to Dr Wilson, “definitely exciting. I mean, what else could you be!”. He recalls: “Even though we had a reasonable idea of what to expect to happen, there's always the unexpected.” A danger for any live broadcast, this was particularly acute for the Moon landing. Dr Wilson was aware that at the back of everyone’s mind were the inherent dangers of the Apollo mission which could cause the loss of the spacecraft or the astronauts, “We didn't dwell on them, we were just aware that if we suddenly lost the connection then that was one of the things that might have happened.” Fortunately all went well and the broadcasters remained cheerful throughout the hours of the unfolding events.

When asked what it felt like to take part, Dr Wilson explains that “I was aware that it was a momentous occasion, but I didn't feel stressed by that. I think I'm fairly notorious for not getting overly excited about things.” He went on to say he remembered thinking “This is just something we should be doing. It's not something to get excited about”. But he was glad he took part.

Fifty years later, as we remember the events of Apollo 11 and the first men on the Moon, we should also acknowledge the men who sat through the night, talking into their microphones and helping listeners to understand the extraordinary events which were unfolding thousands of miles above the Earth.

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