Save It or Lose It

I was listening to WorldFM last Saturday night, which featured a replaying of the Cape Canaveral launch commentary of the Apollo spacecraft mission in the Apollo-Soyuz joint mission back in 1975.

Back in the last days of the Cold War, this was a tremendous step forward in co-operation for the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The mission also marked the historic final launch of the Apollo Command and Service Module which had successfully ferried American astronauts to and from the moon and the Skylab space station. It wasn’t that which particularly struck me but the audio quality of the commentary and what was said.

The launch commentary had been recorded via shortwave radio by the well-known New Zealand DX-er, Chris Mackerell. Hunched over a receiver on the 15th of July in 1975, headphones on, cassette recorder at the ready, he had managed to capture the sound of something which we are all rapidly forgetting with our modern communication systems – the sound of human voice fading in and out of an eerie assortment of pops, squeaks and wails. Although shortwave radio is still widely used, it is heard less often by the ordinary public.

Nowadays we have a wide choice of television, AM and FM radio services to keep us abreast of world events. But even as recently as the early 1990s, it was necessary to resort to shortwave radio to hear unfolding events on the far side of the planet, if the few local radio stations and TV channels of the time weren’t showing interest.

The American commentator at the Apollo launch provided a fascinating mixture of his own observations and official NASA audio feeds. There even seemed to be one of those NASA squawk-boxes (familiar to us from Tom Hanks’ Apollo 13 movie) running in the background.

Notably lacking was the modern intervention of NASA’s marketing department with some trite line about “recapturing the moon” etc at the moment of the launch. Instead, we heard the countdown and the voice of one of the controllers at the Kennedy Space Centre ad-libbing as events unfolded.

It went something like this:
Controller: … the batteries are on-line…
… T minus fifty five …
… cabin is now pressurised …
… (followed by the usual last 15 second countdown)
Commentator: I can see the flame at the tail…
Controller: … it has cleared the tower …
Commentator: At one minute fifteen the flame is, oh, about 5 centimetres long [Did I mis-hear that or was he broadcasting to a French audience??? – even metricated NZ wasn’t quite using those measurements in the heat of the moment back then]
Squawk-box: peep! burble burble peep!
… peep! Roger peep!
Commentator: The escape tower has been ejected …

Real seat of the pants stuff made all the more real by the man-made and natural interference that was upsetting the signal.

Sometimes we forget that we, too, are a part of history. Whilst there is a laudable resurgence in recording the lives of our parents’ generation, we often forget to save some of the things that intrigued US during our lifetime, and in the hurly-burly of ordinary life they get pitched out when we move house. But some of this material will be of interest to our children’s generation when we have moved on.

There are several repositories in New Zealand eager to help us conserve material of historical significance. For example, the Alexander Turnbull Library will happily consider conserving photographs of notable events, interesting sequences or themes. The New Zealand Sound Archive will give help and advice on saving those snippets of recorded memories.

Save It Now – or it will be lost to later generations.

3 Responses to “Save It or Lose It”

  1. Chris M says:

    Ah yes, well I remember listening to all the Apollo missions on the trusty old shortwave radio 🙂 Now, if only I’d kept those old reel-to-reel tapes :-((((

    For anyone interested in radio history, the Radio Heritage Foundation, http://www.radioheritage.net , is another organisation trying to preserve radio history. I believe they are working together with the Sound Archive to transfer at lot of stuff into digital format.

    Cheers, Chris

  2. Peter B says:

    The good old day’s of listening to shortwave Radio, started for me back as a kid in the best reception area in New Zealand, Riverton. With an old valve Philips, 4 band radio that dad had. The receiving of QSL cards, so many memories. But things have come full circle as I now sit on the Train each morning listening to Podcasts off the internet on my 15GB iPod.

  3. Jeff N says:

    Interesting stumbling over this. I was 14 and recorded the news reports on a simple shortwave radio from the VOA, it was always the first thing on the report.
    I must have erased them as I remember finding the tapes a few years later but alas, no more Apollo Soyuz reports on them.
    I think I was probably the only person interested in this mission at school at the time.

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