AT LAST, THE
After sitting through God's wrath against the White Star Line and
A Funny Thing's feeble foray into science, the viewer is
finally introduced to the videotape that Mr. Sibrel claims clinches
Except the viewer never really gets to see it.
Sibrel claims he has an hour's worth of behind-the-scenes NASA
video, and the narrator talks at length about the video, but
this key evidence -- which the film says "cannot be misconstrued" --
is doled out in little bits and pieces, practically guaranteeing that
the viewer will misconstrue it.
Nor is it true what Sibrel says about A Funny Thing being
the only source of the footage. Mark Gray has published it --
complete and unedited -- in his remarkable must-have DVD series on
Apollo 11 available from Spacecraft Films. Washington University professor
Larry Haskin also published it in his VHS versions of the Apollo
videotapes. There you can see that the astronauts are not talking
about how to fake the footage, as Mr. Sibrel claims, but simply
learning to use an experimental color television
camera that was a late addition to their mission.
Fig. 1 -A stagehand swats a fly on the head of KTUL
(Tulsa, Okla.) anchor Phyllis Watson during a commercial break.
Only a few words of the original astronaut dialogue appear in A
Funny Thing. Since the dialogue doesn't seem very compatible with
Mr. Sibrel's interpretation of what is going on, we suspect it has
been omitted to keep the viewer from forming his own impression.
Mr. Sibrel argues that the astronauts were figuring out how to
position the camera in order to fake the image of a distant earth.
Yes, the astronauts were figuring out how best to position the camera,
but nothing they say or do leads us to believe they were trying to
fake something. Camera placement is an important issue in legitimate
videography too, as Sibrel obviously knows.
As a former news cameraman, Bart Sibrel should know exactly the
kinds of behind-the-scenes discussions among newscasters that
nevertheless get captured on tape, and even at times, inadvertently
broadcast (Fig. 1). The astronauts were preparing for a live telecast
for which they hadn't had time to practice. Is this any different
than a news reporter testing her uplink back to the studio by telling
a joke before "going live"? And she experiments with her cameraman to
find the best composition for the shot -- perhaps with a courthouse in
the background, or an accident scene -- prior to beginning the formal
report. None of this is evidence that any of what the reporter is
about to describe has been staged.
Here's what really happened on the way to the moon.
The crew needed practice with the camera. While the viewfinder on
the camera was sufficient for basic framing, the exposure adjustments
for the best picture could only be evaluated by the ground tracking
stations, who could see the picture on their large color monitors.
Now a color television signal requires a lot of bandwidth, and to
transmit it from the ground stations back to Mission Control required
periodically adding a leased high-capacity microwave link to the
tracking network. Since this special link was needed only for
telecasts and not for normal voice or telemetry, it was not in place
at all times -- it had to be scheduled. Specifically, it was not set
up when the astronauts were practicing with the camera. But it would
be set up later when the astronauts "went live".
There was a secondary,
private conversation in which someone prompts the
Fig. 2 -Bill Gill (left) and Walter Cronkite (center)
prepare for an interview in front of Goldstone's slow-scan
television equipment. It was from a console similar to this that
Goldstone engineer Bill Sheridan helped the Apollo 11 astronauts
fine-tune their television pictures. (Bill Wood)
The CAPCOM in Houston could hear and talk to the astronauts, but
he could not see the picture they were transmitting. The engineers at
Goldstone could see the picture and hear the astronauts, but in
general could not talk to them. Goldstone was recording the picture
on their local videotape recorder as they received it from the
spacecraft over the large radio telescope antenna. They would
transmit the video to Houston later, when the microwave link was
Bill Wood was on duty at Goldstone that day and gave Clavius a
description of what we see and hear in the downlink video.
The "secret prompter" may have been engineer Bill Sheridan manning
the television console at Goldstone. He is giving the CAPCOM feedback
on what he can see on his monitor and suggesting how the picture might
be improved. The CAPCOM then relays Sheridan's suggestions to the
crew. Mr. Sibrel never lets the viewer hear this part of the
conversation. The only thing the viewer hears purporting to be
off-camera prompting is a garbled half-syllable, which the narration
infallibly declares to be the word "talk" -- supposedly instructing
the astronauts to begin responding to the CAPCOM's question.
"If you listen to a lot of CSM downlink audio you will hear
occasional garbled conversations that the astronauts had using the
normal intercom circuit," says Wood. The astronauts' headsets served
not only for the radio link to Earth but also for their local intercom
communications. The switches isolating one of those circuits from the
other would sometimes "leak", inadvertently transmitting a weak and
distorted cabin conversation to Earth. The garble Sibrel says is a
command from the ground is an example of that leakage. It's not a
hidden prompter or even Bill Sheridan. It's a member of the flight
crew talking to his crewmate, with a portion of that signal leaking
through the switch and being transmitted in distorted form to Earth.
The CAPCOM tells the
astronauts that they're going to synchronize something "on the
playback." Clearly this shows that the television footage was
transmitted from the spaceship, edited and sanitized, and then played
for the public as a "live" telecast.
Fig. 2 - The CAPCOM statement describing "playback", as
published in the July 1969 transcript. (NASA, GET 10:42:04)
Mission Control had arranged for Goldstone to tape the camera
tests and play them back over the microwave link to Houston when the
link became available. But in order to have the benefit of both the
visual image and the astronaut's comments, they wanted to have the
crew narrate what they saw and what they were doing. This would be
combined in Houston and used to train later crews, and to evaluate
Apollo 11's performance in the telecasts.
The "playback" in this statement means simply the transmission
from Goldstone to Houston for review. Nothing in the dialogue states
that the tape being made at Goldstone was to be edited and passed off
as a live broadcast; that's just Sibrel's interpretation. A Funny
Thing offers that interpretation as the only possibility, instead
of letting the viewer listen to the conversation on his own and draw
his own conclusion.
Fig. 2 -Other statements from the CAPCOM clarifying the
purpose and nature of the playback. (NASA: top GET 10:37:05,
bottom GET 10:38:21)
We received the tape
from NASA by mistake.
That is his guess. Mr. Sibrel overreacts to the disclaimer at the
beginning and assumes it was something he shouldn't have seen,
therefore the "only" reason he could have received it was by mistake.
It's all very tidy, and all very circular. NASA gives this footage
out to anyone who wants to see it. Mark Gray got it with no problem.
Larry Haskin got it with no problem. These people were up front about
their intent to distribute the material to the public.
Sibrel is no different. He asked for whatever footage NASA had
available for Apollo and got this tape just like every other
researcher did who made similar inquiries.
But the film was
prominently labeled not to be shown to the public.
Fig. 3 -The disclaimer frame on Sibrel's "smoking gun"
footage. It reads, "This film of the Apollo 11 Mission was produced
as a report film by THE MANNED SPACECRAFT CENTER and is not for
general public distribution." (moonmovie.com)
That does not make it a "secret" film nor something he was not
entitled to see.
The preface says it's a "report film" and that it is "not for
general public distribution" (Fig. 2). A report film is one made by
one NASA office or group to communicate visual information in the same
way a memorandum is written to communicate textual information.
Because NASA also makes films for the general public, it is prudent to
identify the intent of some films lest an embarrassing (but perfectly
innocent) misunderstanding ensue. Films intended for the general
public may abstract away important details, while internal report
films instead may focus on specific issues that don't interest the
public. The issue at hand is whether the title here merely creates an
expression of intended usage, or instead imposes a strict restriction
against distribution outside the agency.
There are plenty of examples of restricted access in the Apollo
record that we can use for comparison. Some Apollo material was
initially classified and some (e.g., Project Chapel Bell) remains
Further there was legitimate need for secrecy. From the human end
there was the privacy of the crew to protect. Many of the debriefings
were initially classified because they contained details about the crew's
medical status. That's between NASA at the astronaut. But there were
operational and technological details that had to be kept secret as
well. The United States was in a race to the moon, and keeping its
tools secret in order to win the race is a legitimate undertaking.
And while the Saturn V may not have been intended as an ICBM, nothing
would have prevented the Soviets from adapting it as one if they had
obtained the detailed design and performance information.
Fig. 4 -The cover of the Apollo 12 technical
debriefing, a document intially classified by NASA. The warnings
To this end many Apollo documents now available were once
classified (Fig 4). And they bear today the marks and warnings of
that classification, countermanded by the eventual irrelevancy of
keeping the secret. These markings are far more straightforward and a
great deal less ambiguous than the title frame on the "smoking gun" in
A Funny Thing. Where secrecy was mandated, NASA didn't beat
around the bush about it.
Now before we leave this point, it's worth mentioning that NASA
may have had some legitimate early desire not to have the impromptu
downlink widely disseminated. Keep in mind that NASA naturally wanted
to be seen as capable and well-prepared. The downlink showed a
deficiency in crew training and preparedness that could have been
interpreted negatively by the many critics of Apollo. Even in
legitimate undertakings there are often embarrassing details. Now
that the mystique of the Apollo program has largely evaporated, NASA
has little face to save in that respect.