The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera snapped its best look yet of the Apollo 11 landing site on the moon. The image, which was released on March 7, 2012, even shows the remnants of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s historic first steps on the surface around the Lunar Module. This image of the Apollo 11 landing site captured from just 24 km (15 miles) above the surface provides LRO’s best look yet at humanity’s first venture to another world.
When Neil Armstrong took his famous first steps onto the lunar surface, he kicked around the soil. “Yes, the surface is fine and powdery.” Gazing at the flat horizon, he took in the view. “Isn’t that something! Magnificent sight out here.” After collecting a contingency sample Neil looked around and observed, “it has a stark beauty all its own. It’s like much of the high desert of the United States. It’s different, but it’s very pretty out here.” A few minutes later Buzz Aldrin descended the ladder and joined Neil on the surface of the Moon!
You can see the remnants of their first steps as dark regions around the Lunar Module (LM) and in dark tracks that lead to the scientific experiments the astronauts set up on the surface. The Passive Seismic Experiment Package (PSEP) provided the first lunar seismic data, returning data for three weeks after the astronauts left, and the Laser Ranging RetroReflector (LRRR) allows precise measurements to be collected to this day. You can even spot the discarded cover of the LRRR.
Another trail leads toward Little West crater around 50 meters (164 feet) to the east of the LM. This was an unplanned excursion near the end of the two and a half hours spent on the surface. Armstrong ran over to get a look inside the crater, and this was the farthest either astronaut ventured from the landing site. Compared to Apollo 12 and 14, which allowed for more time on the surface, and Apollo 15, 16, and 17, which had the benefit of a Lunar Roving Vehicle, Armstrong and Aldrin’s surface activities were quite restricted. Their tracks cover less area than a typical city block.
Not only was the landscape a place of “stark beauty”, but also the source of rocks that revealed the Moon’s fiery past for the first time. The samples showed that the Apollo 11 landing site in Mare Tranquillitatis was once the site of volcanic activity, and the flat surface that afforded such an incredible vista was due to broad, thin flows of lava that flooded the region.
After the camera recorded the Apollo 11 astronauts’ descent onto the moon’s surface, they placed it on the moon to record their other activities, beaming images back to Earth by the lunar camera that is still resting on the moon’s dusty Sea of Tranquility, right where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left it. Following NPR’s reports in 2006 that the video tapes were missing , NASA began a massive search to find the tapes from the lunar camera.
That special lunar camera recorded in an odd format that was incompatible with the format used for broadcast TV. So when the footage was received on Earth back in July of 1969, it had to be converted for the live television broadcast, which degraded the images, and hundreds of millions of TV viewers saw dark, murky pictures.
Those pictures were still thrilling — after all, it was “Live from the Moon!” and a human was walking on another celestial body for the very first time — but some experts knew that the lunar camera was capable of doing better.
Soon after Stan Lebar, who worked at the Westinghouse Electric Corporation and led the team that designed and built the lunar cameras, and colleague Dick Nafzger concluded that the 1-inch magnetic tapes with the original Apollo 11 footage had probably been destroyed, a surprise discovery gave them renewed hope.
“We had hundreds and hundreds of leads coming to us during this period,” says Lebar. “Every one of them was investigated.”
Old documents were discovered revealed that, unbeknownst to Lebar and Nafzger, the lunar camera’s signals had also been recorded on a couple of 2-inch tapes by an experimental program run by the Applied Physics Laboratory near Baltimore.
“This was like a miracle out of nowhere,” recalls Lebar in an interview with NPR. “That opened up a whole new search for us with the possibility that maybe this was the savior that we were looking for.”