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The first two manned Apollo missions, 7 and 8, used RCA-made cameras. But when Apollo 9 rolled around, the camera used was built under government contract by Westinghouse.
The smallest commercial video cameras then made were Sony’s revolutionary Porta-Paks. But they weren’t particularly light, cheap or rugged.
The black-and-white camera designed by Westinghouse’s Aerospace Division in Baltimore weighed a little over seven pounds, drew about six watts of power (equivalent to an old-fashioned Christmas tree light) and was roughly the size of a thick three-ring binder.
And it could operate in temperatures ranging from -44 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit and survive a rocket ride to the moon! It was quite an achievement for its day.
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Of course, there were some trade-offs. The cameras being used in commercial stations such as WJZ-TV, the Group W station in Baltimore, delivered up to 525 lines of resolution and refreshed the pictures 30 times per second, providing smooth, relatively high-quality video.
The first Apollo camera could only broadcast about 250 lines and 10 frames per second, which made the pictures slightly blurry and herky-jerky.
(A special high-quality 1,280-line resolution mode, intended for scientists to closely study features of the moon’s surface, was apparently never used.)
Why the restrictions? Because the lunar modules had a very limited capability for beaming signals back to Earth. The TV pictures had to be compressed into 500 kHz of bandwidth, about one-twelfth of the bandwidth available for conventional analog TV pictures.
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The Westinghouse camera got its first test during Apollo 9, which sent back live TV pictures as the astronauts orbited the Earth from March 3 to 13, 1969.
For Apollo 10, which orbited the moon in May 1969, Westinghouse had a new trick up its sleeve — a color TV camera.
Westinghouse also included a tiny black-and-white monitor so the astronauts could see what they were shooting for the first time.
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Conventional color TV cameras of the 1960s could have never made the moon trip. They were bulky and required a lot of light.
They also needed mirrors, filters and multiple video tubes to capture the red, green and blue signals that were combined into a signal color picture. That made them heavy and fairly delicate.
To make a lighter, more efficient camera, Westinghouse resurrected an idea first used to broadcast color TV in September 1940 — a rotating series of filters that sequentially scanned red, green and blue signals using a single video tube.
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The camera used the so-called field-sequential color system invented by Peter Goldmark, an engineer for CBS television. Goldmark had used a mechanical spinning disk to separate full-color images into red, green and blue light, creating the first working color TV system.
In a legendary and nasty fight in front of the FCC in the early 1950s, the Goldmark system was supplanted by the all-electronic NTSC analog color system devised by RCA.
But the old sequential color system allowed Westinghouse to use just one video tube instead of three, making the camera smaller and simpler.
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A special video tube designed to function in extremely low light was developed by engineers in Pittsburgh and at a Westinghouse plant in Elmira, N.Y. The resulting color lunar camera was 17 inches long and weighed 15 pounds with a zoom lens.
It also offered improved picture quality compared to the first black-and-white model and also employed some of the smallest integrated circuits (what we would today call a “chip”) ever built up to that time.
To make the mechanically scanned images compatible with NTSC broadcasts, Westinghouse used computer-style memory devices to store and combine the red, green and blue pictures.
“In other words, we were using cutting edge technology to revive a broadcast system pronounced mortally obsolete a decade and a half before,” Stanley Lebar, the Westinghouse engineer who oversaw the program, remembered in a 1997 article.
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Now Westinghouse was not only building the TV cameras for the moon launches, it was using Goldmark’s invention, which RCA had fought tooth and nail against!
RCA executives must have been climbing the walls in frustration.
But Westinghouse engineers and technicians weren’t finished. For the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, they built an extra-tough version of the color camera for use on the launch pad, to take live, close-up pictures of the rocket blasting off.
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The cameras acquitted themselves well except for one serious glitch.
When Neil Armstrong took his “one small step” onto the moon’s surface during Apollo 11, the color TV camera stayed inside the command module, while the black-and-white camera (fastened to the outside of the lunar module) captured the action.
During the Apollo 12 mission, astronaut Alan Bean carried the color camera onto the moon’s surface. When he accidentally aimed the camera directly at the sun, the video tube burned up, cutting short the live color TV coverage of the moon walk.
The astronauts later noted they had received very little training with the TV cameras. “Nobody ever mentioned the goddamn sun until after we burned it out,” Mission Commander Charles Conrad Jr. quipped.
Unfortunately, the camera’s malfunction gave RCA an opening to steal part of the program away from Westinghouse.
During the final three moon missions (Apollos 15, 16 and 17) in 1971 and ’72, the lunar rovers carried RCA-built equipment to the moon’s surface, while Westinghouse’s cameras remained inside the command and service modules.
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Still, Westinghouse got the last laugh, winning the contract to provide the TV equipment during the Skylab experiment and the U.S.-Soviet joint Apollo-Soyuz project.
In an article written for Electronics magazine in 1969, Lebar and fellow Westinghouse engineer Charles Hoffman predicted the company’s technology could be adapted to surveillance cameras, portable color TV cameras for newsgathering, and astronomy. Those ideas didn’t come to fruition.
Instead, Westinghouse’s lunar TV cameras wound up as an interesting footnote to America’s space program. They were also a proud moment in the history of Westinghouse Electric, a 20th century powerhouse of technology that never seems to get the credit it so richly deserves.
Read more about Westinghouse’s work on the Apollo missions at NASA’s website.
You can see the black-and-white Westinghouse lunar camera at the Neil Armstrong Air & Space Museum in the flier’s hometown of Wapakoneta, Ohio, about four and a half hours west of Pittsburgh.
In photos of early U.S. television studios, the cameras seen are often those made by the Radio Corporation of America, or RCA.
In fact, the ubiquitous RCA TK-11/TK-31 — like this one, shown in use by WQED-TV in 1955 — is arguably the most familiar TV camera of all time.
Oh, there were competitors. Allen B. DuMont Laboratories (owner of Pittsburgh’s WDTV) made high-quality cameras for a while, and General Electric gave RCA serious competition, too.
But one name that doesn’t often come up is Pittsburgh’s Westinghouse Electric Corp.
Westinghouse in the 1960s was an important manufacturer of consumer electronics and household appliances (it exited those businesses before 1974), and operated some of the most successful radio and TV stations in the U.S. It also made broadcast transmitters.
Yet unlike arch-rival GE, Westinghouse wasn’t a major player in the TV camera business.
Nevertheless, Westinghouse TV cameras did take some of the most-widely watched images of all time.
How? Because Westinghouse built many of the TV cameras that the astronauts used during America’s manned missions to the moon, including Apollo 9, which marked its 40th anniversary last month, and Apollo 10, which got underway 40 years ago next month.