One small step for man, one giant leap for BBC Television

Celebrating 50 years since man set foot on the moon, how did the BBC cover "the greatest media event of all time"?

Image: Off-screen picture of American astronaut Neil Armstrong (Flight Commander) walking on the surface of the moon, taken during a live transmission on BBC One, Monday 21st July 1969.

John Escolme
BBC History Manager

July 21 at 02:56:15 UTC - the precise moment when Neil Armstrong became the first man to step onto the lunar surface. It was an extraordinary achievement, was hailed by some as one of the greatest moments in science, and was hugely envied by Soviet competitors. Certainly it proved to be a great leap forward in covering live events for the BBC.

A mammoth 27 hours of coverage over ten days had the UK gripped. 50 years on, BBC History Manager John Escolme revisits the historic broadcasts with James Burke, one of the main presenters during the mission, and dips into hitherto un-released interviews from the BBC Oral History Collection, to re-examine what that extraordinary coverage meant for the BBC, its audience, and science.

Radio Times cover showing the Apollo 11 rocket blasting off from Cape Kennedy. The caption says 'follow this week's historic adventure on BBC TV and Radio'
Radio Times, Target Moon Special, July 12-18 1969.

All in the planning

Planning 27 hours of BBC TV coverage is no small undertaking in any era, but looking back to the late 1960s, with the technology available then, it seems amazing it ever happened at all.

By summer 1969, only BBC Two had progressed to broadcasting in colour, the other two UK TV channels laboured on in lower definition black and white.

Live TV by satellite had been achieved by 1962, and the European Broadcasting Union and BBC had successfully linked every continent by satellite by 1967, but the technology was expensive to use, and its capacity still very limited.

However, the constraints didn’t stop the BBC stepping up to the challenge. It decided it would broadcast the Apollo mission in its entirety.

For good measure, the Corporation also added the broadcast of the mission to the world beyond America, to its list of responsibilities.

The BBC also electronically converted the American standard pictures that reached earth via Houston, using equipment of its own design, and sent them around the world in partnership with the European Broadcasting Union.

Once it understood the enormity of the task, and had defined its commitments, some specific, almost comical problems started to arise.

Broadcasting the Apollo 11 mission almost never happened, thanks to a baseball game scheduled to be broadcast to Puerto Rico at the same time.

Sir Richard Francis Head of Special projects for the BBC in the late 60s, and stationed in the U.S. at the time of the Apollo missions, explained this extraordinary situation to Frank Gillard in his 1986 interview for the BBC Oral History Collection.

Interview with Sir Richard Francis, 1986. From the BBC Oral History Collection.

James Burke for the hot-seat

Once these obstacles were out of the way, it was time to get the BBC TV on-screen team together for the Apollo 11 mission.

Who would front such an important broadcast?

Since 1966 James Burke had presented and reported for the BBC's Science and Features Department, and had made his mark fronting the flagship science magazine programme Tomorrow's World.

His writing on popular science, and his highly regarded book of the Tomorrow's World series was an instant success, and to BBC managers, these credits made him the perfect fit to present the Apollo mission programmes.

However, before the broadcast, Burke knew practically nothing about space flight, and shuddered at the thought of presenting hours of continuous television whilst attempting to sound knowledgeable.

Interview with James Burke, 2019. From the BBC Oral History Collection.

The most historic journey in the history of Man, perhaps

Cliff Michelmore, 16 July 1969

Increasing sophistication

By 1969, production techniques had come a long way since BBC TV first ‘televised the moon’ in 1949.

From the studios at Alexandra Palace, wobbly images of the moon had then been reproduced using a series of mirrors, and broadcast to a not so impressed audience.

A BBC camera pointing down a complicated series of lenses and mirrors.
The ‘optical arrangement’ used for televising the moon from Alexandra Palace on September 5th 1949. The moon shone through the open window (right) onto a coelostat mirror (immediately behind the television camera) from which it was reflected into the fixed mirror (centre back), and then into the parabolic mirror of the reflector telescope (in the right hand corner of photograph). From there it was reflected into a small mirror at 45 degrees which directed the image into the television camera. The Moon, Monday 5 September, 1949, 21.45, BBC Television Service.

Widespread public interest in space only came when TV could genuinely follow a mission in outer space, a fascination that peaked with Apollo 11 – the great moon-walk moment.

Longer and longer sequences of programmes covering each Apollo mission became ever more sophisticated.

The broadcasts transferred from the very cramped two studio set up at Alexandra Palace to the colour equipped studio 7 at Lime Grove.

Some programmes came from Television Centre, making the Apollo 11 programmes a much more glossy (and watchable) affair.

For Apollo 11, BBC One was to stay on air continuously for 11 hours from 23.30 (July 20) until 10.30 (July 21). This in itself was a landmark for the BBC - being its first all-night broadcast.

BBC Two would broadcast parts of the mission in colour, another innovation for a European broadcaster.

The ever popular Cliff Michelmore would anchor all the main broadcasts, leaving Burke and Patrick Moore to analyse the technical aspects and concentrate on the real science of the mission. Moore had a seemingly endless stream of maps of the moon’s surface at the ready, and swept into excited and energetic detail at a moment’s notice.

Burke’s vast amount of research into space flight paid off, and he was able to fill long gaps in the lunar action with informed comment. However for him, knowing how much of this to reveal was critical.

Interview with James Burke, 2019. From the BBC Oral History Collection. Image: James Burke, Cliff Michelmore and Patrick Moore reporting from the Apollo Space Studio at BBC Television Centre.

Bridging the gap between two worlds was an awesome achievement

Patrick Moore, 1999

A horserace with satellites

Keeping such long hours of television on air, required highly detailed logistics. Yet with only two months from broadcasting the previous mission, Apollo 10, an altogether more modest affair, there was very little time to get coverage of the most historic mission fit for continuous TV.

Executive Producer Dick Francis was the mastermind behind the Apollo transmissions for the BBC - a man Burke recalls as ‘one of the best and most professional people I’ve ever worked with”.

It was Francis’ job to organise studios, crews and access to satellites.

Interview with James Burke, 2019. From the BBC Oral History Collection

The greatest media event of all time

James Burke, Network First: Apollo, When the World Held Its Breath. Yorkshire Television, 1994

One chance to get it right

With many hours of Apollo coverage already under their belts, the presenting and production team were ready to broadcast 'the moment' – Neil Armstrong’s famous lunar walk

On the day of the walk, BBC One and Two broadcast two programmes.

The first was at 18.45

The other, two hours later, covered the landing of the Eagle module, and lunar walk.

In the Lime Grove studios the presenters sat at a long desk with physical models of the Earth and moon to point at, behind them was a large image of the Saturn V rocket that had carried the Apollo module into space.

Virtual reality backdrops and 3D interpretations of statistics were but a dream in 1969.

However, electronic television captions had just been made possible, as Richard Francis recalls.

Interview with Sir Richard Francis, 1986. From the BBC Oral History Collection. Image: A first generation electronically generated caption.

Knowledge and expertise from covering previous missions proved invaluable, now the broadcast from the moon’s surface had to be flawless.

The excitement was palpable, but for James Burke and all those in the studio, there was no awareness that history was being made. Broadcasting that moment was something you just had to get on with.

Interview with James Burke, 2019. From the BBC Oral History Collection. Image: A young James Burke in 1969.

Are they going to have sufficient fuel to land on the moon, or are they going to have to abort very close to the lunar surface?

Gene Kranz, Flight Director, lunar landing, Apollo 11

Just 17 seconds left

The journey to the moon was straightforward enough, but nearing touchdown there was a clear and obvious problem for the Apollo 11 crew. Fuel was running short, very short.

As much as James Burke would have liked to have explained to viewers the grave situation in detail as it unfolded live, he and his fellow presenters held back, but why?

Interview with James Burke, 2019. From the BBC Oral History Collection.

Despite everything, touchdown was a success. The rest is history.

The Moon, BBC FOUR, 27 Feb 2006, 21:11. Narrator: Sean Pertwee.

When Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon's surface, the whole BBC control room with the canteen ladies and security guards standing beside the vision control desk, exploded into cheering and clapping

John Godson, BBC Gallery Director, 21st July 1969

A sigh of relief

The moon walk had been a success, and the BBC TV broadcasting team had pulled it off.

Hours of broadcasting across two channels, had stretched BBC resources, and had broken down many of the established working practices in TV at the time.

Press coverage was positive and because the on-air team had answered questions from the public on air throughout the mission, a positive connection between audience and the BBC had been firmly established.

A TV production gallery - a mostly male crew watch a large bank of black and white TV screens.
Typical BBC TV production gallery from the late 1960s.


What was the effect of the Apollo missions? Was there a lasting legacy for science, or broadcasting?

Following Apollo 11, James Burke suggested that no real science had come out of the landing, and that the missions were really a show for the media.

Fifty years on, does he still take that view?

Interview with James Burke, 2018. From the BBC Oral History Collection. Image: James Burke and Patrick Moore inspect a model of the moon on set in the Apollo Space Studio.

With 16 million UK viewers at its peak, Apollo 11 was a significant media moment.

For the BBC, it established rules and conventions around continuous broadcasting, made highly technical information digestible for anyone watching at home, and brought disparate teams together from all over the Corporation for common cause.

What the missions did for science remains open for debate.

BBC programmes celebrating 50 years

Further reading

Share your memories

Do you recall watching the Apollo 11 moon landings 50 years ago? What were your first impressions, and did you feel something great had been achieved? How many hours of BBC coverage did you watch, and did you take part by sending in a question?

Do please let us know more about the role of the BBC in your life - and share with us some of your memories, good and bad.

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