Audio Tapes From The Apollo 11 Mission Reveal The Unsung Heroes From Ground Control

NASA has just released 19,000 hours of audio from the Apollo 11 mission, available to the public on the Internet Archive.

Apollo 11 first step on the moon.
NASA / Getty Images

NASA has just released 19,000 hours of audio from the Apollo 11 mission, available to the public on the Internet Archive.

While everyone knows the names of the three astronauts who flew the historic Apollo 11 mission to the moon, very few people are familiar with the extensive team laboring at Ground Control to make it all possible.

Their voices, together with those of NASA astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins, can now be heard in a vast collection of audio tapes that has just been released in digital format, reports NBC News.

Numbering 170 tapes that recorded 19,000 hours of audio data from the Apollo 11 — the first manned mission to land on the moon on July 20, 1969 — the collection echoes the camaraderie that brought the astronauts together and the incredible teamwork between them and their colleagues at Ground Control.

To Ben Feist, a software engineer who is organizing and processing the audio to make it more accessible to the public, the latter are the unsung heroes of the Apollo missions.

“The real story is the mission control side of things,” Feist said in a statement. “How did they do it? How did they send everybody to the moon?”

Feist is also working on a website for the Apollo 11, which he hopes to have up and running by the mission’s 50th anniversary next year. The engineer has already put together a portal for Apollo 17, which includes more than 300 hours of audio, 22 hours of video, and 4,200 photos from the 1972 mission.

The 170 audio tapes from the Apollo 11 have been digitized by NASA in collaboration with the University of Texas in Dallas and are currently stored on the Internet Archive.

These recordings allow us to listen in on the most “critical” conversations between the three astronauts and their ground-based colleagues and find out what went on inside the main Apollo control room at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

According to Greg Wiseman, a NASA engineer involved in the digitization project, the end goal of this endeavor “is to identify all the voices on the tapes and pay tribute to all the people who helped orchestrate one of humanity’s biggest moments,” notes NBC News.

“Once the audio gets out there, maybe people will say, ‘Hey, that was my dad, or that was my granddad,'” said Wiseman.

Yet digitizing 170 tapes that each contain 30 separate audio channels is hard work, especially when the only tape recorder in the world that can play them is able to read just one track at a time.

Luckily, the project team came up with the idea of ordering a custom-built read head that could play back all the channels simultaneously, shaving off years from the entire process. In the end, the digitization of the Apollo 11 audio tapes only took four months to complete.

The project aims to celebrate the people who worked tirelessly behind the 20 computer consoles inside the Apollo control room, as well as other rooms in the compound, to keep the mission running smoothly.

Project principal investigator John Hansen, a speech researcher at the Texas university, believes the mission owed its success to the fantastic teamwork that transpires from the conversations recorded on these tapes.

“One of the things that comes across is that each of the people working for NASA is proud of what they do. They were always working collaboratively.”

Among the most memorable moments recorded on the tapes is a dramatic exchange that occurred when the Eagle lander was 33,500 feet (10,210 kilometers) from the lunar surface. As the spacecraft was rushing toward the moon, Armstrong and Aldrin received an unfamiliar program alarm they had never encountered before and had to rely on the Ground Control team for guidance.

But not all the moments captured on the audio tapes are as intense. The recordings have also preserved lighthearted banter between the astronauts and the ground-based team. For instance, one audio clip has recorded “a playful remark about the booze-soaked celebrations that were expected in Houston following the astronauts’ return,” notes NBC News.

“You throw a match in that Clear Lake area, and it’ll explode,” a voice in mission control can be heard saying in one of the tapes.