The Color of the Moon

I was 16 years old when Apollo-11 landed on the moon.  Color television had been invented but most TVs were still black and white.  I had seen a few color televisions on display and in other homes, but the color was usually awful, partly because the broadcasting signals had to be compatible with black and white sets. 

It was a remarkable technical achievement for a television to display color, while at the same time the older TVs could still show a nice black and white picture of the same show.  One of the drawbacks however, was that the color TV had to be very carefully tuned and aligned and calibrated, a challenge for the electronic components of the day which were prone to drifting off perfect reception.  The result was that people’s faces often turned green or purple.  Viewers are quite tolerant of colors being wrong, but not when it makes humans look like Martians.

Like most families, we had a black and white TV.  Color televisions were very expensive.  My dad, ever frugal, even as an early technology adopter, purchased a color TV kit from a company that offered such things to hobbyists.  It came with a lengthy step-by-step instruction guide and what seemed like a zillion parts.

The basement ping-pong table became a workbench on which the components were sorted and organized.  I recall being impressed by the complexity of the project.  Circuit boards had to be assembled and soldered.  Wire harnesses and connectors had to be built.  The color picture tube was fragile and huge, nearly 25 inches in diameter!  It all had to be built into a chassis and then installed into a TV console.

This was an enormous project, but my father was up to the task, having acquired the electronics skills from his amateur radio hobby.  I couldn’t provide much help, other than to cheer him on.

Which I did.  It was July 1969, and Apollo 11 was on its way to the moon.  I thought it would be really cool if we could watch the moon landing in full color!  And so it became a race against the clock with Dad working furiously to complete each assembly step and check it off in the instruction manual, with the rest of us asking “When will it be done?”

It came down to the last few hours.  Apollo arrived at the moon and the landing module was preparing to come out of lunar orbit during the final assembly steps of tuning and converging.  It was quite exciting to see the picture tube come to life and show a test pattern of colored dots.  The dots had to all line up, horizontally and vertically so that they converged on top of each other to make rows and columns of white dots.  After adjusting and readjusting, my dad was finally satisfied.

He then connected the antenna and shortly, Walter Cronkite appeared in full color, narrating the historic event.  It was beautiful full color too, better than I remembered from the few other color televisions I’d seen.  We watched in fascination as the video camera on the lander sent back images of mankind’s giant leap. 

Unfortunately, it was a black and white camera.  

In the years since, I learned how technically difficult it was to get a video signal of any kind to travel the quarter million miles to Earth and still be viewable.  In subsequent Apollo missions, further advances allowed them to send a color video camera.  It did not change the imagery however.  It turns out that the moon itself is black and white!

Pictures taken of the newly assembled Heathkit color television during the Apollo 11 moon landing.
Frame 7, enlarged.  Neil Armstrong can be seen as the blurry white “5” shape at the right.

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