"Tech Time Warp of the Week: Watch President Nixon Dial the Moon in 1969"
February 21st, 2014
President Nixon placed countless phone calls from the Oval Office, but there was one he called the most historic call ever made from the White House: His phone call to the moon.
When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, millions watched on television as they climbed from their spacecraft, bounded across the lunar surface, and planted an American flag. They also saw the Apollo 11 astronauts take a long-distance call–a very long distance call–from the president.
“This certainly has to be the most historic telephone call ever made from the White House,” Nixon told them. “Because of what you have done, the heavens have become a part of man’s world, and as you talk to us from the Sea of Tranquility, it inspires us to redouble our efforts to bring peace and tranquility to earth.”
In the video below, you can watch the call in all its grainy, low-def glory. It was routed from Washington to Mission Control in Houston, and from there, it bounced to Manned Space Flight Network dish antennas scattered around Earth, traveled 238,000 miles to the Apollo Lunar Module, and finally hopped to its ultimate destination: antennas attached to the backpacks carried by Armstrong and Aldrin. Armstrong’s response was then transmitted back to the Oval Office.
It all went relatively smoothly–if you can forgive the low-grade audiovisuals. “For all its historic importance, it was basically an engineering test mission. Hence the ghostly, somewhat jumpy black and white images and the often crackly audio from the moon,” says WIRED Science blogger David S. F. Portree, a space exploration historian at the U.S. Geological Survey.
The call used technology developed by the Air Force, USGS, and several corporate contractors, including AT&T’s BellComm, one of the smallest subsidiaries of the Bell System. BellComm, formed at NASA’s request in 1962, employed scientists plucked from the legendary Bell Labs. “It was a huge team effort, with nearly half a million people across the United States involved at its height,” Portee says, referring to the Apollo project as a whole. “To me, that’s one of the really inspiring things about it. Americans came together and accomplished amazing things.”
After bidding the president goodbye, Aldrin and Armstrong crawled back into their space capsule for the three-day journey home. On July 24, together with fellow astronaut Michael Collins, they splashed down about 920 miles off the coast of Honolulu. They were promptly picked up by the USS Hornet, and once aboard ushered into a mobile quarantine facility–a modified camper–where they would spend 21 days. NASA wanted to make sure the astronauts weren’t carrying alien germs that could exterminate life on earth.
Once sealed inside, they got to meet President Nixon. He was on the opposite side of a thick glass window, and the chat wasn’t nearly as impressive as a presidential call to the moon.