Neil Armstrong's moon landing heralded revolution in television viewing for New Zealanders

By Luis Portillo

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We take a look back at how the moon landing was broadcast in New Zealand in 1969. Source: 1 NEWS

I was barely four when astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped down the Apollo 11 capsule and gleefully bounced around the lunar surface like an unsupervised kid in his own playground.

Except that he wasn't unsupervised. The entire world was watching him on TV.

When my parents, siblings, and grandparents gathered in front of the TV that Sunday night in 1969 to marvel at the miracle of technology putting a man on the moon, I doubt they gave any thought to the enormous task of bringing the images "live" from the surface of the moon into our living rooms.

The fact that this was the first time Venezuelan TV had transmitted a "live via satellite" event would change forever the way we watched television.

At the same time, on the other side of the world, it was already Monday in New Zealand, and although the nation was aware that humankind had finally put a man on the moon, they had to wait a few more hours to watch the historic feat.

Bringing images from outer space was also a challenge for NASA. The American space agency spent almost equal time and effort figuring out how to show the moon landing to the world as they planned the lunar mission.

An antenna on the outer capsule transmitted images from the moon on a narrow bandwidth. After the signal was received at both Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station near Canberra and Parkes Observatory in New South Wales, the images were upgraded to broadcast standard and sent to mission control in Houston via satellite from where they were diffused to the world.

However, New Zealand couldn't get the feed coming out of Houston. It would be another two years before the country had its first earth-based satellite station at Warkworth. But the country missing such a significant moment wasn't an option. It was decided that a film would be cut in Sydney and then flown to New Zealand on an RNZAF Canberra bomber and put on the airwaves as soon as possible.

Since television had arrived in New Zealand in 1960, there were regional TV centres with limited coverage in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. When it came to daily news, a film had to be flown up and down among the four main centres, screening on different days throughout the country.

On the verge of a new decade, linking the country for simultaneous coverage became a necessity and a priority. Eleven relay stations were built along the length of New Zealand to make this possible. But It wasn't an easy task, rough terrain presented significant challenges to the engineers trying to develop the national network.

On Monday, July 21, 1969, after the film of the moon landing arrived in Wellington, it was taken to the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation in town where it played on the news that evening. For the first time, New Zealand audiences could see the same images at the same time via a temporary microwave link up.

A few months later, in early November, with a permanent link across the country, the NZBC Network News premiered, presenting, at last, the same news stories to the entire nation on the same night. Coverage of the general election followed later in the month.

The operation that started with the images of Neil Armstrong stepping about the lunar surface eventually became 1 NEWS.