Apollo 11, In Real-Time

Article By : George Leopold

A website released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the first lunar landing details our greatest technical achievement.

Ben Feist, a Canadian software engineer and spaceflight data visualization specialist, released his splendid Apollo 11 Real-Time Mission Experience website on June 15. Feist digitized and restored no less than 50 channels of NASA Mission Control audio along with thousands of mission photos, images and historical TV footage. The chatter among Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins and their interactions with Mission Control in Houston are equal parts trivial and fascinating. The onboard conversations are especially revealing, providing a window into how the crew interacted, joked, debated during their eight-day voyage, humankind’s greatest adventure: the first landing by humans on another world.

This is Feist’s second moon landing website. He previously compiled the full Apollo 17 mission in December 1972 that included three days on the lunar surface activities. That site is heavy on historic video. The Apollo 11 web site features dozens of audio channels ranging from flight controller Gene Kranz and Glynn Lunney grilling their systems engineers to backroom technicians dialing up receptionists on land lines.

Not only is Feist’s site presented in real time, it also represents a time capsule of the pre-Internet days.

As one admirer of Feist’s work noted recently on Twitter: If you want to be productive today, don’t click on this link.

We spoke earlier this month with Ben Feist as the rave reviews for his Apollo 11 web site were pouring in.

***EE Times***: What motivated you to take on such an ambitious project?

Ben Feist: In 1997, I stumbled across the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal (which still hasn't changed much since the 90s). The depth and richness of the content on this website really made an impression. This was during the dial-up internet days, and the creators of it had made available some very short Realmedia audio clips that allowed you to listen to mission audio while you read along with the mission transcript. I was hooked.

As a young multimedia software developer at the time, I knew that if this material could be made into an interactive experience of some sort, it would be amazing. I had this thought in the back of my head until 2009, when I finally made a start on what became apollo17.org, a real-time recreation of the last mission to the Moon.


Ben Feist

Apollo in Real Time applies the same concept, but with Apollo 11 material: make every media element sync to mission time. If you want to see a certain photo, the whole experience jumps to the moment the photo is being taken. If you'd like to research one of the lunar samples you can find it at the moment the sample container is being filled. The new website uses much of the same code base as Apollo17.org, but the functionality has been greatly expanded, including a reduced functionality mobile version of the experience that focuses only on the Mission Control audio.

EET: Can you quantify the amount of data encompassed by the Apollo 11 site, and what tools were available to organize and visualize it?

Feist: It’s difficult to measure in many ways. At its core it’s 240 hours long and 50 channels of audio wide. It contains over 2,000 photos, all 16mm footage shot in Mission Control (hundreds of clips), 15,000 transcript utterances, post-mission commentary from the crew and other experts… the list goes on. From a pure data standpoint, the whole experience is almost 1 terabyte in weight.

EET: Among the most compelling features of the Apollo 11 website are your painstaking efforts to synch iconic film footage with audio tracks. Can you explain how you managed to track down the exact words in hundreds of hours of audio contained on scores of channels? Did this require new algorithms?

Feist: Only the algorithm of blood, sweat and tears! The core of this sync work is what’s known as the “30-track audio” — recently digitized recordings of all of the mission control console positions. I wrote software that corrects the many defects and playback speed errors and artifacts that were in these recently digitized files. This allows one to jump to any Ground Elapsed Time (GET) of the mission across any of the 50-odd tracks of audio with a timing error of less than 2 seconds over 16 hours per tape.

With this as a starting point, Stephen Slater, an archive producer out of the U.K., determined in what phase of the mission each clip of silent film had occurred, and who was being filmed. He then used the restored audio GET wayfinding system to look for activity on that controller’s audio track, and synced up the audio to the moving lips on the film. All of this synced audio footage is in apolloinrealtime.org/11 This work was also used heavily in the recent IMAX film, Apollo 11.

EET: You previously released an Apollo 17 real-time website that was heavy on video (since lunar surface operations lasted three days.) What lessons did you learn as a software developer building that site that were applied to the Apollo 11 project?

Feist: I’ve essentially broken every software engineering rule there is to break while developing these projects. The biggest is that I focused on outcomes rather than architecture. Being a one-person show for most of the effort, I had to err on the side of solutions that I could personally solve, rather than depending on a broad team of experts to build things “right.” I couldn’t afford to hit areas of development that made me hit too steep a learning curve. There was no time. This had positive effects as well: I learned that while there’s an academic right/wrong way to do things, as long as the work you’ve done passes the testing phase (and is non-critical like these websites are), there’s nothing wrong with roughed in code that works.

EET: We’re curious: Have you heard from either of the two surviving Apollo 11 crew members about their reactions to the web site?

Feist: I haven’t heard directly from them, but Michael Collins was kind enough to compliment the website on Twitter. It really means a lot to me to know that he’s seen it and enjoys it.

I have heard from [flight controllers] Gerry Griffin and Glynn Lunney, [Apollo 17 lunar module pilot] Harrison Schmitt and [retired NASA engineer] Spencer Gardner. They had very kind words of encouragement. Dr. Schmitt’s email just said “WOW!!!” I think the addition of all of the previously unreleased mission control chatter really means a lot to the people who worked on Apollo.

EET: You also worked on the documentary Apollo 11 along with your colleague, the archivist Stephen Slater. Did one project dovetail into the other?

Feist: Very much so. The Apollo 11 film was behind the effort to rescan all of the 16-mm mission control footage, which they gave to me for the real-time website. I restored the 30-track mission control audio that was suffering from “wow and flutter” and gave it to them to use extensively in the film. We’ve been collectively joking that apolloinrealtime.org/11 is the 240-hour cut of the Apollo 11 film.

EET: Your passion for space exploration is apparent, as is your sense of history. How can we translate the pride we feel for the accomplishments of Apollo into new space endeavors?

Feist: I’m very excited to be working within NASA as a software engineer, helping with humanity’s return to the moon. Apollo looms large in everyone’s minds at NASA and the parallels of it with the current Moonshot efforts are direct. In my Apollo history efforts, I have endeavored to bring the reality of Apollo to the public by providing direct access to the historical material in a “no narrative” way. This has the tremendous effect of adding the direct personal detail of the astronauts and the people who worked in mission control to the usual legendary status of Apollo overall. What we find is that the people who worked on Apollo were just normal people who had a job to do, and were no more or less capable than the people of today.

EET: Will you produce websites for the other Apollo lunar missions, including the flight that didn’t land but made it home safely?

Feist: I would very much like to. I have a lot of Apollo 13 historical material, and there’s a possibility that I could produce a mission control-only version of a real-time experience for that mission. The anniversary is coming quickly, though. Not sure I can make it while also working on all of the current NASA mission efforts that I’m involved with. There’s a chance that I could spin up a project with other helping hands to get the remaining Apollo missions done in a similar way, but I would deprive myself of being able to dive in to the historical material myself. I find it so personally rewarding to do so.

Feist website

The web site home page.

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