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July 19, 2019

Picture Perfect: How APL Helped the World See the First Man on the Moon

Gary Whitworth, who worked at Johns Hopkins APL from 1966 to 1997, was part of a small team that solved an issue plaguing the Apollo 11 Lunar Module’s Slow Scan Television Camera (SSTV), allowing it to clearly send the images of Neil Armstrong setting foot on our Moon to Earth, and hundreds of millions of viewers, on July 20, 1969.

Credit: Johns Hopkins APL

It is an indelible moment in American history: “That’s one small step for man,” Neil Armstrong’s voice crackled through television sets worldwide, as he descended from the Apollo 11 Lunar Module, “one giant leap for mankind.”

An estimated 600 million pairs of eyes watched Armstrong touch his feet to the Moon’s surface in the early hours of July 20, 1969 — and that grainy black-and-white camera footage became some of the most recognized TV images in world history. But it’s possible that seminal accomplishment would not have been viewed without the work of members of the Space Systems Application Group at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

“Our job was solving quick, short problems for Apollo,” said Gary Whitworth, an APL engineer who joined the Lab in 1966. Whitworth was part of a small team assigned to work out the kinks in NASA’s Slow Scan Television Camera (SSTV), which transmitted video at 10 frames per second, compared to the 30-frames-per-second norm of commercial television in 1969, and to hone the signal. Interference from other crucial mission signals that needed to be sent back to Earth turned the image to snowy, line-streaked mush.

“The transmission still would’ve been there [without our work], but you wouldn’t be able to see the picture very well,” Whitworth said. “We reduced the interference by about 20 dB, a 98% reduction, so the TV was at least watchable.”

It seems ironic, to say the least, that one of the people so responsible for the television transmission of such an iconic moment in history doesn’t recall exactly where he was when he watched that transmission of the moon landing. But 50 years later, the pride of his contribution has not dimmed.

“NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center would come to our group at APL to solve [particularly difficult] problems, and this was one of those problems that popped up,” Whitworth said. “If we solved it, we were heroes. If we couldn’t solve it, well, nobody else could solve it either. You couldn’t lose in that game.

“It was very rewarding work, and I think it spoiled me from that time on. I still did interesting work, but it just was not as exciting as those early Apollo days.”

As the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing approached, Whitworth dug around the shelves in the office of his Clarksville, Maryland, home and found the medal NASA had commissioned for all who participated in the mission in a significant way, just “gathering dust,” as he put it. On the medal’s front are the Apollo 11 astronauts — Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins — and on its back is the Lunar Module with the date of the historic event.

Whitworth worked at the Lab for the better part of 32 years, retiring in 1997, and contributed to a multitude of projects — including developing the radio frequency parts of the timing receiver, which translated tones from the Naval Research Laboratory Navigation Technology Satellite into time fixes of submicroseconds anywhere in the world. Whitworth said that technology may have been a precursor to what we know today as GPS.

But despite his significant contributions to the telecast of the moon landing, one of history’s most well-known images, Whitworth said he hasn’t exactly been dining out on the story for the last 50 years.

“It was my job, it was something we were supposed to do,” Whitworth said, noting nonchalantly that he may have talked about it with one or two of his five children, eleven grandchildren or seven great grandchildren.

“I probably mentioned it to a few people — maybe other retirees when we get together, slapping on the back and joking about that time — but for the most part it was just one of those tasks.”

Taking retirement from APL just before his 56th birthday, Whitworth looks back on his Apollo tasks, as well as the host of other projects he worked on over his 32 years, fondly.

“I loved my career at the Lab,” he said. “I wouldn’t transfer it for anything else, it was a great place.”

As for the medal from NASA? Now that he’s given in to some nostalgia surrounding the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing, it may find a more prominent display spot.

“I’ll put it a little closer to the front of the shelf,” Whitworth said with a chuckle.

Media contact: Geoff Brown, 240-228-5618, Geoffrey.Brown@jhuapl.edu

The Applied Physics Laboratory, a not-for-profit division of The Johns Hopkins University, meets critical national challenges through the innovative application of science and technology. For more information, visit www.jhuapl.edu.