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Listening in on Apollo’s Mission to the Moon

This is a guest post was written by Harrison Behl, reference librarian in the Recorded Sound Section.

Saturn V launch vehicle (SA-506) for the Apollo 11 mission liftoff, July 16, 1969. NASA.

As we celebrate and commemorate the achievements of the US space program in bringing a human to the moon with the successful mission of Apollo 11, a curious turn of events in recording provides an interesting way of looking at just how rapidly events of our recent history have sped by.

Radio was still the primary source for breaking news through the 1960s, even though television had come to be the main course in many people’s media diets. NBC provided special coverage of nearly every development of the space race, beginning with the USSR’s launch of Sputnik through the harrowing journey of Apollo 13.

Through the NBC Radio Collection here at the Library of Congress, one can follow each launch, each milestone and each disappointment, in the march toward the moon and the stars beyond. And the technologies that preserved these 20th century achievements were themselves an achievement of an earlier era. The radio record of the space race was captured on lacquer discs, a groove cut into a surface not far removed from the cylinders and shellac discs of the 1890s.

NBC began recording portions of its network broadcasts in 1936, using a newly refined system for instantaneously recording onto metal discs coated in a thin layer of nitrocellulose. Known today as lacquer discs or sometimes “acetates”, these discs were 16 inches in diameter and played at 33 1/3 rpms, the speed later adopted by the LP record. Each side of a lacquer could capture a 15 minute program. Magnetic tape would not be available in the US until after World War II.

Inspecting grooves on recently cut lacquer disc. Recorded Sound Section.

For reasons that are still not completely clear, NBC continued to record on to lacquer discs well after the advent of magnetic recording, which allowed for easy editing and longer playing times. When NBC donated their collection of these discs to the Library, it totaled over 125,000 discs. One of those discs reported the first words spoken on the moon.

It could be that NBC decided to phase out their lacquer recording over time and these recordings are an accidental byproduct of their timeline. It could be that the ability to erase tape made lacquers a better media for long term storage. It might have related to intra-corporate relationships between NBC and RCA staff that made lacquers fit certain purposes, but not others.

Regardless, I find it fascinating to think that a close cousin of the stylus that embossed Thomas Edison’s voice onto a wax cylinder also traced the first reports of footsteps on an alien world.

NBC Radio Collection, Recorded Sound Section.

NBC’s  coverage of the space race can be heard in the Recorded Sound Research Center  and can be searched for in our SONIC catalog. These and thousands of recordings of radio broadcast are available for listening.

As always, don’t hesitate to get in touch through Ask a Librarian if you have questions about moving image or recorded sound research at the Library of Congress.