Ben Feist - Apollo in Real Time
Ben Feist is a Spaceflight Data Researcher and Apollo Historian at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.
His Apollo in Real Time web project is an enormous undertaking to present the lunar missions exactly as they happened with fully restored images, audio and film footage, synced and time-coded for the first time so that they can be experienced exactly as it happened, 50 years later.
Originally an after-hours hobby, his work became central to the recent Apollo 11 documentary feature film and resulted in a job offer at NASA. In the lead-up to the 50th anniversary of Apollo 13, which will go live on the website next week, he joined the MTF Podcast to talk about his work.
Dubber: Hi, I’m Andrew Dubber. I’m the Director of Music Tech Fest. And this is the MTF podcast. You know the story, of course. 50 odd years ago, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins left the Earth’s atmosphere in Apollo 11 for a roundtrip that became known as one of the greatest adventures in humanity’s history. And last year, the world celebrated the anniversary of that historic event. There were parties, there were Hollywood films, there were tributes. And there was this website that provided the most comprehensive, authoritative, and real time experience of the mission and all of the images, sound and film restored and painstakingly re-synced to the exact moment it occurred: Apollo in Real Time.
Next week, the next instalment of the project launches to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 13 mission which you may recall from a mid-90s Tom Hanks film with the same name. And 50 years to the exact moment from when it happened, you’ll be able to watch it play out live. And I’ve got to say, the website apolloinrealtime.org is one of the most astonishing web interfaces, deep dive heritage projects and detailed labours of love I think I’ve encountered online. The man behind it all is NASA’s Ben Feist.
And when I say NASA’s Ben Feist, I don’t mean he made Apollo in Real Time as a NASA employee. He became a NASA employee because they saw his Apollo in Real Time. I spoke to Ben last week and he’s a fascinating guy.
Here’s my conversation with Ben Feist. Enjoy.
Dubber: Ben Feist, thanks very much for joining us on the podcast today.
Ben: Well, thanks for having me.
Dubber: No problem at all. You’re working on some phenomenal stuff. I want to start before we get into the things that you’re working on now is, where did you start? Not how this part of the process began. What got you into working in this kind of territory in the first place?
Ben: Sure. Well, I’ve always been a software developer and I’ve always built things that people can see. So in the 90s, that meant being a multimedia guy, making CD ROMs, and interactive experiences. And eventually that became - of course, now, it all happens on the internet. And I’ve always been excited about making interactive experiences. And I came across the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal, which is a website that’s still online. And it looks like it’s from the 90s still, which is kind of on purpose, but it is a hypertext version of the transcripts of what they said on the surface of the moon on all the different Apollo missions. And when I came across this in the late 90s, I couldn’t believe the richness of this material that had been pulled together by a team of volunteers, and I thought this is the ultimate multimedia source material if we can make something out of it. And that idea stuck with me for many years before I finally got started in about 2009.
Dubber: But by then, you weren’t building CD ROMs anymore?
Ben: No, no. And this is, and now here at the end, I can give you numbers. It’s almost 200 gigabytes worth of data. So that was an unheard amount of data in 1995.
Dubber: Sure, yeah.
Ben: So I kind of needed technology to come along as the idea didn’t leave me. I kept –
Dubber: How many CD ROMs is that?
Ben: Yeah, it’s a lot. Yeah, I don’t know if I can do that math quickly. 300 and something CD ROMs, yeah.
Dubber: Right. But it’s sort of brought you to, I guess, to the problem of being an archivist?
Ben: Yes, I’m certainly not an archivist although now I am an archivist. Or I guess I know what it takes to be a good archivist. And I’d have huge respect for the people that do it well. Having met people on the National Archives now, who do it for a living and do it very properly. It really is a wonderful job.
Dubber: Well, when I first came across to you, the reason that you sort of came across my feed is because all the people that I follow on Twitter who are all about basically old audio gear, which I’m real kind of not over. We’re reposting the pictures of these reel-to-reel tape recorders that you are working with. It’s sort of like not just sort of multi-channel but like 60 odd channels of recordings of mission control. And they were beautiful machines. And I thought, okay, so there’s somebody doing an audio restoration project, and you dig a little bit deeper and there’s a lot more to this. How do you describe what it is you do exactly? If you’re not an archivist and it’s not really software engineering.
Ben: Yeah. What I do I suppose is, I am a generalist who’s trying to make something at the end, which is a real time recreation of Apollo missions as they occurred. And it turns out during an anniversary, this is especially wonderful thing to participate in because you are peeking in on history exactly what was happening on that mission right now 50 years ago. And that has caught the attention of many people. And this is like I said kind of a fun thing to put on the internet from my perspective. And it really means a lot to a lot of people. We had a million people show up to the Apollo 11 in real time this past summer, which was just unbelievable outpouring of emotion. You know, what Apollo 11 means to people is just incredible.
Ben: So the technical thing is, you have to become a 3D graphics guy. You have to become an audio guy, but only enough to be dangerous in those arenas. Like you just mentioned, archivists. It’s just floating along the surface of what that career would have been and then moving on to the next portion that you have to figure out in order to try to make these things work.
Dubber: For the sake of - obviously, it’s a podcast, people can’t see you. And people are sort of possibly detecting a youthful tone in your voice. You went around to watch the first time it happened in real time?
Ben: No, No, I wasn’t. I was born in 1971. So I missed it by a couple of years, but I was around for two of them. And so Apollo 17 was in, when I was little, when I was one or something like that. And Apollo 16 just shortly before that.
Dubber: So where did the interest come from?
Ben: Well, I mean, who isn’t interested in this stuff? It’s kind of the greatest thing, greatest human achievement in my opinion. And I grew up –
Dubber: Yeah, everyone’s interested, not everybody has dedicated their entire life to recreating it online in real time.
Ben: Well, I’d hate to say that I dedicated my entire life. Just to be clear, this was a hobby that I did on evenings and weekends after my actual job. And this was a way for me to unwind after a stressful day at work, not another job that of throwing myself at this painful thing in order to get the outcome. It was the process itself that was a lot of fun. But I don’t consider myself any more passionate about this. I wasn’t a kid going to space camp or anything like that.
Dubber: What sort of kid were you?
Ben: You know I was a Lego kid. I was a kid that like to make things and a lot of make believe stuff, that kind of thing and I don’t know. I don’t think I stood out in any particular way. I was just although you know I guess not every kid wants to sit and play Lego for hours and I did that. So that might be an indicator that I like to make things but I just sort of followed that mode. And my father is an artist and he also likes to make things and I think that was a huge influence on me as well watching him do what he does.
Dubber: Because I see and just sort of behind you in your workshop, you got all these kind of makeup tools and 3D printer and –
Ben: Yeah, and I’m guilty. What you can’t see are the many model airplanes that are also in here with me. But yeah, that might be - there’s an example of something else I did after work on evenings and weekends before I discovered all this Apollo work could be done.
Dubber: Right. But it sort of got you noticed. And now you work at NASA. So, tell me about how that happened. What was the journey?
Ben: Well, sure. The first project I did was about Apollo 17. The last mission, the last landing on the moon of the Apollo series. And it’s a long story, what it took to do that. It was about a six-year long process again on, an hour here and an hour there without any real goal, other than pulling all this data together. And I knew I would be able to make something of it, but I didn’t know what I was going to make. And eventually, yeah, without telling the whole story, I actually contacted – or actually, they contacted me. The head of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Mission, the project scientist named Noah Petro at Goddard Space Flight center reached out and said, Hey, I just saw your Apollo on Real Time website. This is really cool. And I couldn’t believe someone from NASA had actually reached out to me. And I, oh my god, you’re from NASA. You know, this is so cool. Thanks for reaching out, and we struck up a bit of a friendship. And then, for the next anniversary, that was in 2015. And then in 2016, I didn’t want Apollo 17s websites, glory to just fade away now as another thing on the internet.
So I wanted to come up with another thing to do for the 2016 anniversary. And I asked Dr. Petro if he had any 3D data or high resolution photography of where they landed. And he started laughing and said, that’s literally my job and gave me huge amounts of data that I - just kind of dumped it on me and I went, “Oh, my goodness. Now I have to do something with this data.” Because I can’t disappoint NASA, right? So that’s when I became a 3D modeling guy and I made a 3D rendering of the valley that they landed in, which is in a remarkable place. And so what this would mean is, to be clear, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is a satellite that is mapping the moon right now and it launched a decade ago and it has been doing so for the last 10 years. There’s a huge amount of information that’s been gathered. And this data, pictures and 3D photogrammetry data of the valley that they were in is down to 60 centimeters per pixel. You can see the footprints that they left on the surface from these photographs. It’s just incredible stuff.
So I googled my way through making 3D renderings of when they drove on their traverses from place to place so that you can kind of fly overhead in a virtual drone and watch the rover drive along the surface. And then I - so that took a summer, and then at the end, I emailed Dr. Petro and said, Hey, listen, I made something with all that data you gave me. And he immediately phoned me and said, “This is amazing. You’ve got to come down and present this at Goddard Space Flight Center.” And, we’ll come up with a date where that makes sense for you to do that. But you have to come and show people that you’ve done this. And my thought was like, don’t you already have people down there that are doing this? And he just said, No. You used LRO data, which is current day science data that we use to write papers. And you’ve reanimated Apollo 17.
Dubber: You’ve made something creative with something that we normally analyze?
Ben: Yeah, and Apollo is something that happened 50 years ago. At NASA, they’re all very much excited about it and aware of it, but they’re studying what they’re gathering today. They’re moving forward at NASA. They’re not necessarily looking back. And to tie those two things together and to make it all feel like it’s quite present and Apollo is just as relevant today as it was, when it occurred. This was all stuff that Dr. Petro recognised that I didn’t really understand how that all worked yet. So I got to go down there in December of 2016 and I presented and gave it my all and showed a roomful of scientists what I had done. And later that day, I was invited to go out into the field with them and actually help them gather their data on their, what they call analog missions, where they’re pretending they’re on another planet while they’re conducting field activities. And helped them to gather their data in a way that would allow it to be presented the way that I presented it on Apollo17.org
So here’s a full time job. It was, do you want to help us with this stuff? And I just kept saying yes, and kept trying to move the ball forward over the years until eventually they called me one day and said, Listen, your name is on so many things for next fiscal year. Why don’t you - we’re sick of explaining who you are. This guy that made this website, that did this thing said, no, it’s okay. Like he’s an okay guy. You should involve him in your project. It’d be easier if he were just been from NASA. And I said, Well, that sounds good to me. And we went from there.
Dubber: Well, so you’re creating something that there isn’t anybody whose job it is to do that. But there’s a massive amount of data presumably. I mean, that NASA is like the European Space Agency. Over here, it is very, very involved in collecting and trying to make sense of all of the data that it collects.
Dubber: But this job of interpretation, it doesn’t seem to be that kind of role within these organisations. How important is that to our understanding of the science?
Ben: Well, it is quite important and I’m gonna wind up hedging everything I say by explaining that it has been told to me by scientists. So this has all been explained to me. So I’m not the one inventing this just to be clear. The way funding works within NASA and other academic organisations is, you propose something and it’s a very vertically integrated if you picture it this way of, an instrument to put on the side of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and you are - in Arizona State University, you are going to build this camera and it takes you a decade to go through the proposal process, get the money, assemble the team, build the instrument and fly the instrument in space. And that’s a full time job for the whole team thinking about this one instrument.
So if you picture those, 100 of those things all next to each other, those vertically oriented efforts, the only horizontally oriented effort is sort of the mission itself and NASA headquarters coordinating everybody but at the data level, at the ground level, there’s only kind of personal effort to go horizontally. It’s not anyone’s job and they teach you in school and in geology that context for what you’re collecting on the surface of the moon, or out in the field excursion, the old story is, show me a dead cat and I can say that’s a dead cat. Show me a dead cat on the side of the road and I can tell you that cat was hit by a car. And the context of the materials and how it’s being gathered is very, very important.
So what this does is, if you can see the crew member picking up a sample and hear what he’s saying about it, and get the scientific data that was associated with that sample at the same time, that is context. That’s the equivalent of the field geology lesson. And this is, as soon as anybody sees it, they recognise it as valuable. So it becomes its own effort. That’s another funded thing, but it’s a horizontally funded thing. And that’s the process that I’m in now to try to understand how NASA funding works and to write the correct proposals to get that money and make this a real project just like that instrument on the side of a spacecraft.
Dubber: Sure. So you’re operating horizontally rather than vertically?
Ben: Yes. And that’s why I don’t need a PhD in whatever that vertical expertise is, and everybody else there does.
Dubber: Right. And that’s the value of generalist, I guess?
Ben: Yeah, I think so. Or at least being able to participate in conversations across different things. And I think my career working as a consultant in the internet world has prepared me for that. You have to be able to walk into any business in different rooms and people that think about different things and at least pay attention and carry on the conversation.
Dubber: So Apollo 11 in real time had an impact and probably more of an impact than you were anticipating?
Ben: Yes, my hosting bill was quite high.
Dubber: I can imagine, well because, again that’s a lot of data that’s going out to a lot of people.
Dubber: But do you want to talk about just so we get the sense of the scale of that? I mean, you said it sort of had a million people engaging with it, but you’re not just talking about a million hits, there are lots of websites that can get a million hits. You’re talking about something much more deeper than that.
Ben: Yeah, this is the average time spent on the website. I think it’s like seven minutes, or nine minutes or something like that which normally it’s measured. When you measure these things in the internet world, they’re measured in seconds, and three is a good number. But that’s if you’re a marketing agency trying to sell soap, or as it were, you know. Yeah, you want to have mass impact of a small message. And what this was were little hooks of moments like, hey, if you want to see this photo being taken on Apollo 11, click here. And sure enough, that photo appears the moment it was taken, but you’re now in the mission, and you’re hearing what’s going on and the next photo comes up and the next photo. And you kind of get carried along like you’re watching reality television.
Dubber: Well, to me, that’s really interesting because that’s about narrative. It’s not just about, show me some photos that were taken on the trip to the moon. It’s like what happened next? And then what happened? And then what happened? And it is kind of that progress. And we know how it ended. Right? We know what the final result of it was. But the story itself at a granular level like that, I think is something that’s really fascinating to people particularly with that 50 years of distance on it.
Ben: Well, I think - I didn’t think it would be fast. It was fascinating to me. I didn’t think it would be this fascinating to everybody else, though. If you’ve got a pitch from somebody saying, you’re gonna - I’m going to make a 240-hour long video that contains technical radio chatter between experts in something that doesn’t exist anymore. And everybody’s going to - a million people are gonna tune in and follow along. You tell me I was crazy, but it is absolutely compelling and I think a big part of that is that, there is no narrator. There is no interpretive voice telling you what to feel or think. You’re just watching what actually happened in 1969 in that case. And that no narrative storytelling is a really compelling thing in today’s day where nobody knows who to trust and different media outlets all have their different spin on everything. And it’s I think refreshing to a lot of people who just get the raw material.
Dubber: Am I right in saying that you could actually sort of hop around in a kind of a nonlinear fashion? Even though it was concurrent with the timeline, you could go to different stations and see what people were doing in the different areas?
Ben: Yes, there’s essentially - So for Apollo 11, we - and this is where the tape machine comes in, so I can explain perhaps that part first. These tapes are 30-track, one inch tapes that run at 15, 16, 17-inch per second. So they’re extremely slow rolling, 16 to 17-hour long recordings. And there were two of these machines running in parallel recording 30 channels each basically. And the recordings of all these different channels were - everybody wearing a headset in Mission Control. Like you’ve seen photographs and 16 millimeter footage of people running around silently in mission control because there were no boom mics recording anything. It’s just sort of B-roll stuff. But they were talking not just over the radio to the crew. That was only the Capcom doing that.
The rest of the people were all working behind the scenes in a hierarchy that got two directives that the flight director would agree to do and then tell the Capcom to communicate that to the crew. And this protected the crew from hearing 60 voices in their ear, and also helped with command and control on what actions were going to be taken. This action and what they were doing in mission control is what’s on these tapes. And they had not been heard at all. There was a huge effort done not by me but by another group of people that took many years to restore one remaining machine that could play these tapes and to build a custom 30 track playhead for it. And there’s actually a podcast series on Johnson Space Center’s podcast that explains what they did, but essentially that resulted in 11,000 hours of audio from mission control for Apollo 11. So a picture where they redacted some of the Department of Defense channels just because they are Department of Defense channels. So that hasn’t been exported, so we can’t play that. Not because it contained anything interesting. Who’s going to get the sandwich, you know. But anyway, so there’s 50 channels on the website. And these tapes are not, they’re analog, super analog tapes and the machine playing them back is barely working. And there’s no - so they drift all over the place. The drift rate was about two hours. Two hours over 16 hours, they would drift.
Dubber: That’s significant.
Ben: Yeah. And it wasn’t consistent. It was like slowly speed up and slowly slow down. And then on top of that, the motor that was restored that would actually run the machine wasn’t balanced. So it’s introducing about a three heart flutter into the audio. So it’s kind of not timed properly and sounds horrible. And my part of that kind of restoration effort was to then become an audio guy, enough to understand how to try to solve these problems and found some remarkable people out there in the world in the Open source coding community who have almost solved this problem and started just talking to them about it and seeing if they were interested in helping and they did. So, we basically used an iRig B timecode that is on channel one of each of these tapes as a fingerprint to trace the high speed fluctuations and the low speed drift away from the carrier wave that’s supposed to be at one kilohertz on that channel. So you’re basically taking every sample, looking for the one kilohertz carrier wave, seeing that it’s not at one kilohertz in the sample that’s high or low, and then re-speeding that sample to make it at one kilohertz. And you’re kind of fingerprinting –
Dubber: And you’re doing that at the sample level. You’re not doing that at the –
Ben: At the sample level, yeah. So it takes a while. It’s all written in Python and you just kind of trace the flutter and then tell it to remove it and it removes it brilliantly. The drift rate for Apollo 11 was two seconds after 16 hours after this process. And what this does is because it’s a 30 track tape, you just apply the corrective action to all adjacent tracks and you have de-fluttered the tape and retimed it. And the fact that this is possible was like science fiction to me. And you know, it’s like cracking the case. It was really amazing when we got it and this allowed me to be able to put it into Apollo in Real Time so that you can go to any moment in the mission and then say, who do you want to listen to? And that’s now time correct. You can hear what that person in mission control, that position was saying right now.
Dubber: I mean, not only that, but you are also able to retrospectively sync that to the footage that was in the mission control at the same time. So people who are seen to be speaking into their headsets, you can hear what they’re saying?
Ben: Yes, that was a painstaking effort done by a gentleman named Steven Slater in the UK. So the parallel path to all of this is that this is the raw material that was used to make the Apollo 11 film that was in theaters last year. Stephen and I were involved in that and this restoration of this audio was my contribution to the film part of it anyway. And Steven then took it and his job was archive producer. So he was grabbing all the archives and then once he realised that you could synchronise in this way, the way you just described. Now that we had a wayfinding mechanism to say, I think that’s the flight dynamics officer and it looks like this footage was shot just after launch. And you see his lips moving. Stephen would then go look for action on the flight dynamics loop. And it took him a long time. I think it took him about 18 months to add sound to the silent footage that had not had any sound to it before.
We even got moments like Gene Kranz saying, CAPCOM, we’re go for landing now synced with audio. No one’s ever seen and heard Gene Kranz say that before and we were ecstatic that we got this kind of material. And Steven delivered all that to the filmmaker Todd Miller. He then edited through it and made a film out of it. Leaving a huge amount of it on the cutting room floor.
Dubber: As you do when you’re making a –
Ben: Yeah, of course, like he needed to but this is a painful process to make this stuff and now it’s, like they didn’t use that clip of Gene Kranz because in the film, they decided to stay on board with the crew and look out the window with that 60-millimeter footage for the whole landing, which is very impactful. But we’re like, how could you not use this? Come on. So we got a chance to use it all by placing every synced clip in real time as it occurred on Apollo in Real Time. And that was the companion to the film if you want to think of it that way.
Dubber: Fantastic. So Apollo 11, we know how that went. That went quite well, but it’s, we’ve had the anniversary of that. And we’ve got the 50th anniversary of Apollo 13 coming up very shortly. That didn’t go quite so well.
Ben: Yes. Apollo 13, not a lot of people knew a lot about until Tom Hanks starred in a film done by Ron Howard in 1995, which was the 25th anniversary of Apollo, Apollo 13, which I can’t fathom. We’re equidistant. It’s the center point between the actual event and now that’s crazy to me. That’s a lot. It seems like a much more recent film but so that really brought it to everybody’s popular culture, mind and you know, Houston, we’ve had a problem is in the vernacular and that’s from that mission and failure is not an option is, it actually was never said but that’s the movie version of what Gene Kranz said in Mission Control and yes, I’ve done all of this work again this time with a dedicated team of volunteers helping me. So that’s what took two years to make for Apollo 11 and six years to make for Apollo 17 took eight months for Apollo 13. And also this is the – and the crown jewel on this one is the Mission Control audio that has not been heard since 1970. Of what was occurring in mission control when the explosion onboard disabled the spacecraft and how did Mission Control rescue the Crew.
So this is stuff I haven’t heard yet either. I’ve been processing data even today, which is, we’re getting the last remaining tapes digitised that were part of the investigation into the explosion. They were kept separate from the rest. So they were in the National Archives, but not with the rest of the Apollo 13 tapes. They were found. They were sent to Johnson Space Center and we’re digitising them and processing them as we speak. These will be online on March 13 on Apollo in Real Time so that everybody can listen to it and figure out how exactly how they did and what they did in Mission Control.
Dubber: Well, so it’s one step beyond going back and watching the Tom Hanks film. You can actually be there and let it play out in real time.
Ben: Yeah, and the Tom Hanks film I think is on most peoples’ top five good films about Apollo. You know it’s not, it doesn’t get too fictitious. I mean, there’s always a temptation and with Hollywood films, there are dramatisations to make them more drama and you know, the based on a true story only means the character names are based on who they were. But they got it right, at least the ethos of what was going on. But like I said, I’ve already pointed out a couple of things that didn’t happen, you know? But that’s just nitpicky historian point of view, right. But you’ll now get to watch the far less Hollywood dramatic but more reality dramatic version of you can hear the stress in the people’s voices, you can hear them wondering how things are going to work and actually watch without the sort of God’s - looking through the gods of history and everybody’s retelling of back when everybody had the right stuff and we were all special people. During Apollo, you can actually hear them being people and regular people, just like the people we are today, working this problem and getting everybody home.
Dubber: And the stakes were pretty incredibly high. And I guess you could hear that in people’s voices as well, you know.
Dubber: I mean, you can act that for sure. But to actually go, this person is actually experiencing this literally right now. But –
Dubber: 50 years ago, that’s –
Ben: Yeah. And there’s you know, the surgeon - Actually we just found the clip that one of the team members posted that was the surgeon saying, I can’t believe the heart rates during the explosion, one of the heart rates, they said this, the guy was saying out loud, thinking out loud, like this data can’t be correct. Like it must have been a problem with the data, the telemetry that came down, but his heart rate was at 183. So one of the crew members and I remember which one they were talking about, had very, very high heart rate, panic level heart rate perhaps. Or it was the, the antenna did get jostled by the explosion and that you can hear the communication get crackly. So it could just be an anomaly and he’s wondering the same thing, you know. Did this happen or not? And there’s phone calls between flight controllers and their wives and there’s even phone calls from flight controllers calling the wives of the crew and touching base with them and letting them know how things are going. And you can hear - in those moments, you can hear the emotion and stress clearly, obviously that would be there.
But everybody’s doing their job super professionally in mission control, and there’s a little bit of emotion and you can understand it, and you can hear when they’re stressed out. But nobody is saying anything inappropriate on the loop, on the conversation. And there’s a little bit of gossiping, and that kind of chatter, but everybody’s very reserved and professional. And it’s these real moments where they get on the phone and they drop their flight controller mode, and they are just a person talking to someone else on the phone and that’s when you can really hear it.
Dubber: Yeah. And particularly a person who’s not having a good day.
Dubber: Yeah. Well, is there anything that’s really surprised you going through all this material, something that you would not have expected to come across?
Ben: Well, all of it feels like that. When did they understand that there was a problem on the ground is something that I didn’t quite understand before. They knew there was a problem before the crew said, Houston, we’ve had a problem. And the crew said that about one minute or less than one minute after the explosion. They started on the ground going, what’s going on? We’ve just had this data dropout and this number can’t be right, and they’ve got an O2 tank problem. And then we hear, we’ve got a problem here. And the first thing that the ecom flight controller says, and so he’s the guy in charge of the electrical systems for the command module. He says, oh, they’ve got more than a problem. And he said that before a level said, Houston, we’ve had a problem. So I didn’t quite understand the, it’s scene in the film like, everybody on the ground is playing catch up and trying to figure out what just happened, but in reality, they were already there and understood it all before the crew was talking to them.
Ben: So it’s little things like that. And there’s no big giant reveal that I’ve come across yet that’s like, throwing all the historians work out of date or anything like that. It’s really putting a finer point on the human experience of what it took to be a flight controller there. And remember, these people were given the Medal of Freedom for their efforts after the crew safely returned to Earth.
Dubber: I guess you’d be aware at the time of the significance of what it is you’re doing. And so to that extent, it makes sense that NASA has been at least a reasonably good steward of its archives, but they’re not an archival organisation. And that’s not their job. How much of a challenge was that for you in terms of getting this material out?
Ben: Well, the material, the tapes had been at the National Archives. So not at NASA. And the National Archives are in the job of being an archive organisation obviously, and also getting material in and out of the archives. And again, with the Apollo 11 film, it was all of the National archives footage that we use to make the film. Because you’re absolutely right, NASA is not an archival organisation and they’re not a museum and they’re not super funded and have people sitting around waiting to answer the phone, if you’re going to call and ask about the past, because they are spending all of their efforts on how we’re going to return to the moon in 2024 right now and do other things. And that effort is the only thing on their mind.
So getting things like the only machine remaining that will play these tapes back operational again, which is at Johnson Space Center does take external funding and lots of other work. And there’s people there that care passionately within NASA about this, but you have hit on a point where if you’re going to be - if you’re focused on their past, you’re going to be frustrated because they’re not an archival organisation just ready to help you out.
Dubber: And they’re not a cultural organisation specifically either. I mean they have this tremendous cultural significance and importance and I guess that’s why there are so many films and television programs and documentaries and all the rest of it. But there must be some sort of awareness, even if it’s nobody’s job to propagate culture within NASA. I mean, even just things like, what does Katherine Johnson mean is really, really important to the world when you sort of look at what NASA represents. Is there a really deep sense of that, or it’s just nobody got time to think about?
Ben: I think, both organisationally and individually, there’s a huge sense of that. People understand it and think about it. And it means a lot to people that they work there. And there’s nobody that would turn down a tour of the Mission Control restoration when I was working on that. Everybody just becomes a kid again, even if you’ve worked at NASA for 20 years. But it’s NASA’s role to get the data and it’s everybody else’s role to interpret the data. So it’s not NASA’s place if you think about it. They don’t see it as their place to talk about how culturally important they are. They just do the work. And this is maybe why it’s difficult when you’re an archivist trying to get stuff out of there, because part of that means that you’re not sitting there manning the phones and ready to deliver footage to anybody who might be interested in telling your story.
They’re also a government organisation. So there’s no advertising, if you want to think of it that way. There’s no public affairs or PR effort, like trying to sell the nation on the importance of NASA. That’s literally against the rules. You know, NASA can’t do that. It’s against their mandate. They do have a public affairs office but that’s more kind of showing us collecting the data, showing the work being done and interviewing astronauts and doing all that kind of stuff. But it is up to everybody else to pick up the mantle and tell the rest of the story.
Dubber: I’m clearly looking at this from the outside, but is this a difficult time politically for NASA? Is it under threat in the same way, say for instance, the BBC is under threat in Britain?
Ben: No, it’s not. Policy and politics is always I think a difficult thing if you’re in a public organisation because your funding comes from one place and your directives come from another. So it’s a constant effort to try to join those things. I think right now, it’s a good thing in that we have a clear mandate to return to the moon, which is something that I think a lot of people individually at NASA have wanted to do. And there’s a lot more scientific work and exploration work that needs to be done in that arena.
Dubber: Sorry. To what end?
Ben: To what end? You mean, why do we bother going to the moon? Is that the question?
Dubber: Well, broadly I guess that is the question, but what is the outcome that people specifically want to get from going back to the moon is really the question I’m asking.
Ben: Well, the moon is, you’re asking me to become a generalist. Now, I’m a lunar scientist. Okay, so let’s see if I can be a lunar scientist for a minute.
Ben: The moon is essentially our gateway to understanding our own past of the formation of the earth. Before we went there and started gathering samples in the 60s, nobody knew if it was a captured satellite from somewhere else, or if it had always been there when the planet formed, or if it was even made of the same stuff that the earth is made out of. And in as late as 1966, they were arguing differing points of view on whether you’d even fall into the surface if you tried to land. We knew so little about the moon, and we went there six times, gathered samples from those six locations that we’ve been analysing now for the last 50 years. And that is where we get all of our information on the formation of the earth and our theory around how everything happened. If you think about the importance of our place in the universe, we don’t even know our own origin story unless we go try to find these things out.
The idea of going to only six different places and picking up a few rocks and trying to tell the whole story that way is the situation we’re in right now. And the plan right now is to return to, to go to the South Pole and we returned to the moon. Where there are craters that have been in permanent shadow for billions of years because the moon is actually almost at perfectly 90 degrees to the sun. So there’s areas that sun never shines, and areas that the sun never doesn’t shine. And in these permanently shadowed areas, they have found evidence of water ice sort of muddy material that shouldn’t exist. By all the theories, there shouldn’t have been a place where these materials, they’re called volatile materials still exist. And if there is water ice on the moon, that is something that we could refine in order to live there because we could turn water into hydrogen and oxygen. So that’s energy and consumables for humans to live.
Dubber: Raising the question, I guess why would we want to do that?
Ben: Well, this is back to learning to explore in other places. If a lot of people think about Mars as a place to go next for people to go colonise. This is picture, this is camping in your backyard before you go way out into the deep woods. So camping in your backyard, it is going to the moon and doing it by proxy what does it take to live on another planet and learning how to do that. So learning how to use the materials in situ as it’s called. So the local materials are not bringing everything with you and consuming it. It is a huge part of that. So the lunar exploration efforts are part of that. And it all is tied to us becoming a multi-planetary species where if you think about it, is what has to happen with humanity if we have any plans to exist beyond the next cataclysmic event, whether that’s an asteroid impact, or us ruining the earth ourselves, or in some way, nuclear war, whatever you have it. Right now, all of our eggs are in one basket. So here we are in this conversation now in a very broad sense, talking about the future of humanity, but really at the forefront of human knowledge and the science that we gather, we have to explore and go do these things. Or we’re really just going to be sitting here theorising and that’s not the same thing.
Dubber: And I guess that makes you a historian of the future of humanity?
Ben: Sure, I’ll take that. Okay.
Dubber: Absolutely. So how long has it been since we were last there?
Ben: The last time we were there was December of 1972.
Dubber: And what’s been the delay?
Ben: Well, the reason we went the first time was, the short for it is, footprints and flags. It was to beat the Russians in the space race to show that our economic way of life was better or just as good as the Russians as they beat us in low Earth orbit in the space race. So it was kind of a Cold War military exercise or, at least military and spending scale with the same outcome like to try to win against foreign power. And now with all the reasons and they quickly then over the Apollo period, it became about science and on Apollo 17, Jack Schmidt, the only scientist to go to the moon went to the moon and conducted field geology, which I think is amazing. I mean, imagine you’re a career geologist and now you’re on the surface of the moon conducting field geology and picking up samples. It’s just unbelievable story, but we haven’t been back because for a long time, that space exploration was kind of about firsts, you know, did you go do this? Did you go do that? And as it became more about science, we focused on nonhuman spaceflight.
So we worked on. We’ve sent probes all over the solar system. We’ve learned so much about different planets, we’ve had vehicles driving around on the surface of Mars conducting science, and the human exploration side of things has been limited to the International Space Station, and the shuttle program before that. So now we’re getting back into the idea of human exploration onto another planet. So it’s not necessarily just the scientific payload anymore that’s the important thing. It’s the fact that humanity needs to go and explore and go to that new place and learn what it is like to be there. It’s just sort of time to do that, but it feels like a big delay because it’s been 40 odd years, 50 years to Apollo 13 in April. But that’s kind of right on schedule. If you look at the Europeans exploration in coming across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World, it was over 100 years between the first visit by Columbus and a permanent settlement that came to live. So we’re right on schedule when it comes to humanity exploration. So from that point of view, this whole, you know, NASA’s past, NASA’s present, NASA’s future, it’s all really just space exploration as it’s occurring. And Apollo is something that just occurred very recently. And we’re learning to do that in a permanent sense for permanent habitation on the moon.
Dubber: Oh yeah. April 11, which is just a few weeks away, how you’re going to be spending the day?
Ben: Well, I think I’m traveling that day. So it’s pretty crazy that the week leading up to that, I’m going to be in the desert in New Mexico, conducting another field analog, where we are pretending we’re on the surface of another planet, gathering data. And then I guess I’ll take a shower and get the dust off and sit at my computer and try to keep website from crashing as many people come to visit.
Dubber: That’s the date of the explosion itself, isn’t it?
Ben: No, April 11th is the launch date. And it depends on the time zone, but it’s between the 13th and the 14th is when explosion occurred. I think that’s right. It’s 55 hours into the mission. So somebody else will have to do the math. I always get my time zones mixed up because I try to think in Ground Elapsed Time and not in time of day.
Dubber: But I guess that’s what people will be if they’re tuning in for something that’s there but they’re gonna be tuning in for –
Ben: Sure. Well, I mean, if you do visit during the anniversary, there is, you know, what was happening right now, but you are still able to navigate the website and go to anytime you want, if you want to skip ahead or back and it’ll always stay online. So it’s really only a special thing for the anniversary because it has this reality TV aspect to it. But the website will go live on March 13th. So people will get a chance to look around and listen to the different consoles and get a feel for what was happening on the mission and then come back again on the anniversary if they’d like to, to get that emotional impact of being there.
Dubber: Interesting. And are we gonna see any kind of Hollywood tie ins for this one this time around?
Ben: I don’t know. I haven’t heard from Tom Hanks. We’ll see what he has to say.
Dubber: Ben Feist, thanks so much for your time today. It’s been an absolute pleasure.
Ben: Well, I really appreciate you taking the interest.
Dubber: Cheers, and good luck for it.
Ben: Thank you.
Dubber: That’s software developer and spaceflight data visualisation researcher, Ben Feist, of NASA, @benfeist on Twitter. And that’s the MTF podcast. Please go check out Apolloinrealtime.org. It’s absolutely astonishing. And next week, the Apollo 13 mission launches on the website. Really looking forward to following along with that.
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I’m Andrew Dubber. Have a great week and we’ll talk soon. Cheers!