Apollo 11 Anniversary: How Hollywood Helped NASA Bring the Moon Walk Images to the Public

A massive preservation project involved some 1969 broadcast materials and a Hollywood motion picture restoration process.
Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission in 1969; Neil Armstrong is reflected in his visor.

Today, people around the world will be inspired by HD images from Apollo 11 and man’s first walk on the moon. And those images, recorded half a century ago, look as good as they do with some help from Hollywood.

Fifty years ago today, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon, and while NASA focused on the extraordinary mission and bringing the astronauts — Armstrong, Aldrin and Michael Collins — safely home, apparently archiving the images that were recorded on that day wasn't on people’s minds. In 2006, the space agency reported that it couldn’t find the masters of the historic moonwalk and began an extensive search. Three years later in 2009, it admitted that the search was unsuccessful.

Fortunately, Armstrong's "one small step," also made broadcasting history, transmitted to hundreds of millions of viewers. And so in 2009, an Apollo 11 restoration initiative began with a team of Apollo-era NASA engineers who helped produce the 1969 live broadcast of the moonwalk. They went out and acquired the best of the broadcast-format video from a variety of sources. This included a copy of a tape recorded at NASA’s video switching center in Australia, where down-linked television was received for transmission to the U.S.; original broadcast tapes from the CBS News Archive recorded via direct microwave and landline feeds from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston; and kinescopes found in film vaults at Johnson that had not been viewed for 36 years. 

NASA then turned to Lowry Digital, a Burbank-based company that specialized in restoring motion picture films for Hollywood. Lowry had restored a long list of classics including Citizen Kane, Doctor Zhivago, The Godfather and the original 1977 Star Wars, to name a few.

With the broadcast materials acquired by NASA, Lowry Digital went to work with the delicate task of restoring this footage in high definition, which wasn't an easy process. The broadcast footage was some of the worst quality images that they had every received, recalls Mike Inchalik, who was the company’s COO at the time.

"We started with terrible image quality," he tells The Hollywood Reporter, citing the use of period cameras and recording technology and the noise that was introduced when the images were sent back to Earth. But he adds that considering what they started with, the end result "was probably better than anything we had ever done. The work was entirely custom. Our lead researcher wrote special software."

Inchalik explains that the company's "Lowry Process" of restoration involved mathematically tracking consecutive frames of an image. "You average together consecutive frames of footage, so that the underlying picture becomes more apparent," he says, adding that because the Apollo 11 footage was so slow, tracking roughly 10 frames as it would with an action sequence in a Hollywood movie, it just wasn’t enough. And so the new software — developed by Kimball Thurston, who today continues his imaging research at Peter Jackson’s Weta — enabled them to track closer to 100 frames. (The "Lowry Process" for restoration was developed by the late John Lowry, as well as Thurston and Ian Godin, who together earned an Academy Scientific and Technical Award for this system in 2012.)

Today, Lowry's HD master of the Apollo 11 broadcast provides the public, historians and the National Archives the highest quality imagery from the Apollo mission and will be used countless times as NASA marks the 50th anniversary of the mission.

Meanwhile, collaboration between NASA and Hollywood continues. The space agency communicates with the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences’ SciTech Council, for instance, on the Academy’s "Digital Dilemma," a vital initiative to understand and find answers to how motion pictures and other historic records will be preserved in the digital age. NASA has also participated in efforts of the Association of Moving Image Archivists, which is holding its annual "The Reel Thing" conference with a focus on Hollywood movies from Aug. 22-24 at the Academy’s Linwood Dunn Theatre in Hollywood.

NASA has also worked with Hollywood's cinematography community, as DPs have trained astronauts on how to photograph imagery in space. In fact, Apollo 11 astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins were honorary members of the American Society of Cinematographers.