Real Make Believe Space Programs

or: How I learned to love the Tom Sachs Space Program by reading Nicholas de Monchaux and learning the history of the Apollo Missions.

Did you know there is more than one NASA? There is of course, the NASA which is a United States government agency established by President Eisenhower in 1958. Then there is another NASA, which is an independent agency established by the artist Tom Sachs in 2007.

This article is for Tom Sachs fans like myself, who might not be so well schooled on the historical context for Space Programs. My argument is that by increased awareness of one NASA, the reader can have a deeper appreciation for the other NASA. And along the way, may come to see that the real and the make-believe aren’t so far apart as we might think.



I got to know the Tom Sachs NASA by attending their Mission Control Center in San Francisco, California at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. I was there to witness the first womaned (the crew consisted of two female astronauts) mission to the moon Europa. It was monumental, awe-inspiring, and uplifting.

After the mission, I had the good luck to meet and talk with Nicholas de Monchaux, an expert on the history of the Apollo missions carried out by the other NASA. It turns out that he authored a book on the subject and even consulted for Tom Sachs’ NASA. So naturally I bought his book and got to reading.

The book:
Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo by Nicholas de Monchaux (2011)

This book makes the case that there is no way that humans could have stood (alive and well) on the surface of the moon 48 years ago, if it wasn’t for a special spacesuit, the A7L. It was special because it was hand-made, and by an unlikely, unorthodox organization (The Playtex Bra and Girdle Company). It was made at Playtex, by practical men and women—not your typical aerospace engineers—and all this was key to its success.

Judging by the cover, you might think this is merely a book about the details of creating the suit which enclosed the astronauts on the Apollo missions. But “Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo” is about much more than that. It is about fashioning a certain spacesuit, yes. But it is also about fashioning and entire industry and Space Program behind it. The book chronicles the history of trial and error, of what humans can wear in flight, starting from hot air balloons, and progressing to higher and higher altitudes.

Overall, the book is more about craft, design, organizational logic, and innovation than a technical report on the spacesuit. Fascinating though a pure technical report may be, I argue it is even more fascinating to know all this real world context, and this book delivers.

The art:
Tom Sachs Space Program: Europa San Francisco (2016).

On September 17th 2016, the Tom Sachs Space Program successfully achieved the goal of landing two women on the sixth moon of Jupiter and returning them safely to the Earth. The mission was conducted as a 6-hour play of performance art. Or, as billed on the museum program, a “demonstration”, by the artist and his team, of the multitudinous works of sculpture that make up the material objects of the Space program.

The audience views the performance in the Mission Control gallery. The stage in front is a giant array of screens which display the numerous camera feeds from all aspects of the mission. The spacecraft and the Europan surface are installed in neighboring galleries. (Spectators in certain locations elsewhere in the museum can observe these from a balcony or through a glass wall). But to those at Mission Control in the primary gallery, these other places could just as well be millions of miles away. During the mission, the astronauts are only seen through live closed-circuit television screens and heard through radio intercom.

Surrounding the audience, on the perimeter walls of Mission Control are various special effects stations, each one a work of sculpture containing a miniature setup and brought to life by performers to produce a camera feed with the required image to be shown on their respective screens at Mission Control. All this and more is orchestrated by the Sachs team, exquisitely from start to finish.

I was so enthralled with the concept, both of the mission and of Sachs’ work, that I went so far as to attend the show in a home-made costume and even made a movie about it. So you can see, I am truly an unabashed fan.

My thesis:

The Apollo Space Program was a surprisingly Sachsian affair.

In the weeks after the show, the more I learned about the actual Apollo missions, the more I realized how much the “real” Space Program is just like the Tom Sachs Space Program. But how can that be? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Not completely, I say. Here’s two explanations:

  1. Tom Sachs and his team are obsessive and meticulous in their research and attention to detail. This, along with their powers of imagination, creativity and performance lead to an uncanny similarity with the original, the Apollo Space Program.
  2. Both Apollo and Tom Sachs succeed by playing on deep and fundamental dreams, desires and thought patterns, common to all humans—artists and government employees alike. So the uncanny similarity comes from these common dreams.

Dreams like: one-upmanship, conquest, exploration, adventure, heroism, tribalism, craftsmanship, toolmaking, cataloging, discipline, innovation, cultural pride, and the experience of the sublime.

Back when seeing the Europa show, there were many parts that I thought were invented or exaggerated in the Tom Sachs style purely for artistic effect. But then, going back and learning about the real thing, at times I would say to myself, “wow that really did happen, real life really was that outlandish.” At times it would seem almost—almost—like Tom Sachs himself was behind the Apollo program.

If truth is stranger then fiction, then a corollary could be, fiction based on truth is the strangest fiction of all. And as you will see, this is just what you get with the Tom Sachs Space Program.

1. Cuddly space suit:

In the Europa performance, when the astronauts—Tom Sachs Studio members Commander Mary Eannarino and Pilot Rebecca Silberman—left the Earth behind and got on their way across interplanetary space, they soon settled down for an intimate trip together.

Dressed in their evening-wear (handmade Tyvek spacesuits), they shared a candle-lit dinner, followed by  slow dancing, and then went off to bed where they cuddled, one astronaut placing her arm around the other. All this to the tune of Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together.

Compare this to the other NASA, where of the spacesuit Commander Neil Armstrong wore on the Moon nearly a half century earlier, he wrote, “It was tough, reliable, and almost cuddly.”

Neil Armstrong's Apollo 11 EMU displayed on a table top before the mission was flown.
Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 suit displayed on a table top before the mission. It does look pretty cozy.

That cuddly spacesuit was the Apollo A7L, a hand made “utterly couture garment”, as de Monchaux writes, made by the Playtex Company. The A7L was a garment making feat—with unimaginably intricate sewing, patterning, moulding, layering—which only the most skilled human hands (the down-to-earth craftspeople at Playtex) could accomplish. Of all of the manual arts that went into Apollo, it feels to me that the suit making reached the apogee. And the handmade nature of the suit was key to it’s cuddliness.

Of course there were competitors to the Playtex company, those who took a more conventional aerospace engineering approach. Take this competing suit design: the Litton Industries Rx2.

In this tin can of a suit, you can hardly talk of a “wearer”. The person inside seems more like an occupant.

This suit, de Monchaux explains, was supported by a shoulder harness, and even had a seat for the astronaut inside, made from a repurposed bicycle saddle. When ready for a break, the occupant could adjust the seat height by an exterior knob!

Instead of draping, circling, and supporting the body with a tight air bladder, against which the astronaut pressed his body to move the suit, the Litton suit did not touch the body of the wearer at all, except for the soles of his feet and the insides of his flight-suit-derived gloves. Engineers especially were said to prefer the sensation of a suit that set around, not on the body.

These human-shaped “tanks” that initially appealed to engineers in theory, proved to be woefully inadequate, readers of the book will learn, because in practice they could not properly respect and enable the human being inside.
While the Apollo astronauts and suit successful designers might not have been thinking of cuddling per-se, they were thinking of comfort, and the A7S suit delivered. Comfort was key to the suit’s success.

2. The importance of simulation:

Officially, the Apollo missions were a spacefaring event, but in reality, they were a media event. As such, the audience is an essential component to the success of the mission. The same goes in the world of Art, there can be no art without the audience.

So, for the benefit of the audience, the Europa show is jam-packed with simulation. And it turns out the same is true for the Apollo show.

At the start of the Europa mission, once the astronauts are situated in the cockpit and ready for takeoff, the Flight Controller (CAPCOM) calls out to “Lower blast shields”, and the motorized window shades of the art gallery draw closed. The all-important countdown advances “…ten, nine, eight…“, and then “Ignition”, which is achieved with the first of many special effects sculpture stations that will be used throughout the performance. “Ignition”, consists of an upside-down handyman’s propane torch with a single burner, that is optically multiplied into four burners by a pair of mirrors forming a 90-degree corner. Opposite the mirrors is a surveillance camera, one of dozens used throughout the entire mission to compose the broadcast. The primary screen on the big board at Mission Control patches through the feed from this camera, and so the audience receives the view they require: that of the almighty first-stage boosters roaring into life. Each video effect is orchestrated along with appropriate sound effects for a powerfully thrilling combination. There is no loss to the audience that the image and sounds being broadcast are special effects. We don’t care that it is only a simulation, because we have already bought in. The simulations have helped us to buy in.

The countdown advances “… three, two, one—launch commence!” and Mission Control switches over to the video feed from the next special effects sculpture “Launch”, which has a toy Saturn V rocket slowly rising on a rail surrounded by billowing white vapor from a little fog machine. These camera feeds are interspersed on the big screen with views of the astronauts strapped into their seats, seen by cockpit cameras (which of course are shaking to create the illusion that the whole rocket is shaking as it ascends through the thick atmosphere). Then, booster separation and engine cutoff, which is captured by a camera pointed downwards onto the surface of a desk where a hand-drawn cartoon cutout of the rocket is being moved by the Flight Director’s hands further upwards through the atmosphere (over a sheet of blue construction paper), and then all of a sudden one of the hands flicks open a pocket knife, and slices the fire off. The roaring sound of the engines is silenced and the astronauts are on their way. At this point the audience bursts into joyful applause with the anxiety of liftoff surmounted, and I don’t think I was the only one to shed a tear.

So, you get the idea. The performance certainly has plenty of non-simulated moments—the astronauts in the spacecraft, on excursion on the Europan surface, and constant radio communication with Mission Control—but what a poor thing the show would have been without the abundance of special effects. Through simulation the audience goes on to see “Darkness and Stars”, the Earth receding away, the moon Europa approaching, the excursion module landing on the surface (with advanced computer guidance), and afterwards rendezvous and docking with the Command Module back in orbit around Europa, Europa receding away, the Earth approaching, and finally “Reentry”, splashdown and “Rescue”.

There is just no way that the Tom Sachs Space Program could have told the complete story if it wasn’t for simulation. It would have been sorely incomplete. There are many important visuals that couldn’t possibly be filmed directly. And wouldn’t you know it? The same is true for the Apollo Space Program.

APOLLO 11 MISSION. Cameramen shoot images of a model of the moon's surface at the CBS New Space Center. July 20, 1969. Credit: CBS Photo Archive.
APOLLO 11 MISSION. Cameramen shoot images of a model of the moon’s surface at the CBS New Space Center. July 20, 1969. Credit: CBS Photo Archive.

For Apollo, American news networks pioneered special effects for broadcast, to show the audience what was going on and to tell the story visually. De Monchaux explains some of the “complex simulations and multilayered visual effects”, as he writes, on the coverage by CBS:

In the absence of a live feed preceding Armstrong’s exit to the lunar surface, CBS viewers were treated to hours of simulations and staged reenactments of events in a lunar broadcast. As the Lunar Module Eagle descended slowly to the lunar surface, gliding on the rails of its parabolic trajectory, for example, the viewers of CBS enjoyed a bird’s-eye view from above the spidery lander, and the cratered landscape rolling below. Literally rolling, as it turns out. The landscape was an enormous, latex-and-fabric belt, rolling away from a special-effects camera. Electronics stitched the moving image together with images of a LEM model, a rising Earth, and electronic text to indicate minutes to landing.

Here you can see the special effects for yourself as they were broadcast:

If you thought that zany, handmade practical effects belonged exclusively with the Tom Sachs Space Program, you’d be mistaken. Apollo broadcasters set this precedent decades earlier.

The beauty of simulations like these is that they don’t have to be perfect. In fact the approximations and little imperfections resulting from craftsmanship make them even more endearing. They work so well not because they create a world on a tv screen or in an art gallery, but because they create a world in the audience’s mind.

3. Bricolage engineering:

Tom Sachs refers to his works as bricolage, meaning the creation of new works using an assortment of existing materials and objects.

But this practice is not exclusive to art. One finds the same thing going on in the works of Apollo. As de Monchaux writes, in summarizing NASA’s process of cobbling together the diverse components that took us to the moon:

A space suit is made out of a flight suit, a Goodrich tire, a bra, a girdle, a raincoat, a tomato worm. An American rocket ship is made out of a nuclear weapon, and a German ballistic missile; a Space Program—a new organization with new goals—is made out of preexisting military, scholarly, and industrial institutions and techniques.”

So there is a natural kinship between the two. Neither is creating new things from raw materials. They are creating new things from old things and they are creating uncommon things from common things. Novelty comes not from the components themselves which are familiar and well-known, but from the particular union of the components. It’s the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Tom would use a more amped-up description:

The formula that I use in art is ‘one plus one equals a million’ and the hard part of that formula is deciding what those two ‘one’ things are.

[from an interview with Huck Magazine]

The other part to his formula is that the combination of the one plus one should be handmade. Tom Sachs’ philosophy gives highest regard to the hand made object. It honors that the object was made by a human for a human. It might be expected (for arts and crafts and bricolage, it may even be essential) that the object to be handmade, but would you know it was is also essential for a successful trip to the moon?

As de Monchaux explains, such a complex and high-performing object as the Apollo spacesuit couldn’t have been anything other than handmade:

But then the actual spacesuit—this 21-layered messy assemblage made by a bra company, using hand-stitched couture techniques—is kind of an anti-hero. It’s much more embarrassing, of course—it’s made by people who make women’s underwear—but, then, it’s also much more urbane. It’s a complex, multi layered assemblage that actually recapitulates the messy logic of our own bodies, rather than present us with the singular ideal of a cyborg or the hard, one-piece, military-industrial suits against which the Playtex suit was always competing.

[from an interview with BLDGBLOG]

Besides the spacesuit, another memorable handmade construct (I learned of thanks to de Monchaux) was the Core Rope Memory for the Apollo Guidance Computer. Check it out:

Ferrite core memory as used in the Apollo Guidance Computer (MIT sample for testing)

This was the medium used to store the software programs that provided navigation and control for the spacecraft. It is a weaving of copper wires through ferrous beads. The ones and zeros of the programs are embedded in the weave pattern itself; once its woven it can’t be corrupted or overwritten.

In addition to the visual beauty of a handmade fiber object, Core Rope Memory had a functional beauty in its robustness and compactness. This was the only adequate way, at the time, to store programs for spaceflight. Other memory media, such as punch cards and magnetic tape were too feeble and too heavy to be space worthy.

Core Rope Memory had to be made by highly skilled textile workers working with needle and conductive wire thread. The wire would pass through a ferrous bead, a “core”, to represent a ‘1’ and bypass a core to represent a ‘0’. The cores were arranged in a grid which was supported by a harness for the weaving process. The needle was actually a shuttle (in the weaving sense of the word) that payed out wire from within.

Here is a NASA/MIT documentary from 1965 that shows and explains the process well. Regrettably it also shows prejudice against women in referring to female workers as “girls”, which feels patronizing and degrading. Was this really common practice at the time?

Of course, the history of computing itself is heavily intertwined with the history of weaving and textiles. Think about it: patterns made on the loom are a form of software. The famous Jacquard Loom was a direct predecessor to the punch card computer, and the patrimony goes back much farther. The practice of recording information in patterns and fibers and beads has been around for thousands of years. Look at the Quipu and the Wampum. The Core Rope Memory of Apollo is just an old idea taken to a great new height.

All these complex objects engineered and crafted by hand, assemblages of common parts where one plus one equals a million, this was the practice for Apollo yesterday, and is the practice for Tom Sachs today. Is it any wonder that Tom Sachs chose to start his own Space Program?

4. It’s the Cold War, stupid

To warm up the audience, the Europa performance begins with Mission Control playing a cute video montage. The video shows Americans getting beat down by Soviets in scenes from international sporting matches, contests between USA and USSR at the olympics, even clips from Rocky IV, where, Rocky goes up against his Russian rival in the boxing ring.

My first reaction in watching this, as someone born after the cold war, and having only known Apollo through history books and documentaries, is that this is all a quaint re-framing of the Apollo story, a way to add a touch of melodrama to the performance art. But the more I read, the more I learned that this was a deep truth of Apollo, like it or not. Lunar scientist Paul Spudis puts it this way:

Apollo was not about the Moon, or even about space. It took place in space and ultimately, on the Moon. But Apollo was a battle in the Cold War. John Kennedy did not say, “Go to the Moon and press onwards to the planets.” He challenged America to show the superiority of its economic and political system by landing a man on the Moon and returning him to Earth “before this decade is out.” The key objective was not going to the Moon – it was to beat the Soviets to the Moon.

[From What Apollo was…and wasn’t, Smithsonian Air & Space]

Just look at these newspaper headlines reporting the Soviet victories of putting the first satellite in orbit, and the first man into space. You can almost feel the dejection that proud members of team USA must have felt:

The two worlds were locked in an ideological standoff. Each found itself in an escalation of feats of military and technology. Each wanted to outdo the other, and signal their greater societal fitness to the world.

It is somewhat sad to realize, but the instinct to show off outweighed the more pure instinct for exploration and pursuit of knowledge. In going to the Moon, one of the key things the United States demonstrated was that the United States could afford to spend a large percentage of our national budget (according to Spudis, nearly 7% at the peak) on going to the moon.

I can’t help but notice the parallels to the Handicap Principle in biology, of which the classic example is the male peacock, which spends a large chunk of its energy budget on producing its ostentatious tail of colorful feathers. The idea is that this sends a signal to potential competing peacocks and potential mates alike, that says “Hey, I’m so fit for peacock life that I can even afford to spend this much energy on my colorful display, without compromising my essential peacock abilities.” The parallel often referred to in humans is that of Conspicuous Consumption.

So, with the us-versus-them mentality, in the battle between communism versus capitalism, the United States chose to go all in on showing off. Americans wanted, consciously and subconsciously, to psych out the Soviets. The choice of technique could have been worse I suppose; it could have been the murder and destruction of typical warfare. Not that the Cold War was entirely without those either.

Should one be depressed to look at it this way? Does it demean our humanity that the roots of such an effort as the Apollo missions be ignoble? Or can we still celebrate and admire all of the achievements regardless of their origin? Sometimes it takes a compelling justification, or a good excuse, to advance the state of the art. The United States space program was a good excuse to make a multitude of cutting edge technologies, and in the same way the Tom Sachs Space Program is a good excuse to make a multitude of cutting edge sculptures.

Question for Nicholas:
  • In the Space Race, the Soviets did some bold bluffing *(see note below). Did USA do much bluffing? And beyond bluffing, what about sabotage? Did either team ever attempt to sabotage the other? How easy would it have been for the Soviets to thwart one of the Apollo missions? Would this have been unthinkable as it is completely unsportsmanlike? And sabotage means possibly murdering astronauts in the process. Was this resisted because it would it have been cause to incite conventional warfare between the two nations?
*The report of Yuri Gagarin's first trip to space, hailing full success, neglected to mention that he returned to earth in a parachute because the Soviets did not yet work out the landing part. Here's an article explaining this bluff in detail.
Question for Tom:
  • If Apollo was a war effort, do you feel like you run your space program as a war effort? If so, do you see what you are defending or fighting for and do you have an enemy? Or is yours a peaceful sculpture/space program?

5. Who to root for?

The essence of the Apollo missions was not about science. Nor was is about rocketry or lunar geology or technology. If it was, all this could have been accomplished by merely sending probes and rovers. But Apollo was about putting people on another world.

Apollo was about achieving a feat of human exploration and adventure. It was putting a human being across a new frontier. It is sending one of our own kind to a new place for the first time because it is there and because we can. The widespread excitement caused by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin excursioning on the moon was because they were people. It was easy to imagine what it was like for them, and then think: maybe, in the future, I, or my children could do that too?

In the same way, the essence of the work of Tom Sachs is not about manufacture. Nor is it about materials, building, or fabrication. If it was, all this could have been accomplished by assembly lines and computer controlled production. But Tom Sachs work is about creating and crafting with human hands, objects that have meaning for people. You can look at a work of his and easily imagine what it was like to make it, and even think, maybe I could make something like that too?

So the primary value is humanity. The secondary values are the technical ones. Incidentally, when the primary value is fulfilled, the secondary values are also fulfilled along the way—much great science and engineering came out of Apollo, and much great construction and fabrication comes out of Tom Sachs studio. One can even argue that the secondary pursuits are even more productive thanks to the primary ones. Dealing with the human element forces solutions to a more challenging problem, it increases lateral innovation, and it magnifies the audience of people who care about the outcome. It is in our human nature to care more about the humans than the robots.

Sending human explorers on a mission, makes for heroes to inspire and look up to. Sending automated tools is mundane by comparison. And the parallels extend to the arts. So, if human spaceflight is a bolder investment in our future, then human handcraft is a bolder investment in our culture.

6. Indoctrination:

One of the more peculiar segments from the Europa Mission was “Indoctrination”. Upon landing on the surface of this new world, the astronauts and ground crew performed an esoteric ritual, something like a sacred or religious observance. There was meditation, recitation and even ingestion of some colored liquid, accompanied perhaps (I couldn’t quite tell from the audience section at mission control) with some sort of pharmaceutical.

Indoctrination Zine. On the cover is the module used in the Europa Mission. From:
Indoctrination Zine. It depicts the module used by the astronauts on the Europa and the prior Mars missions. From:

The participants in the Indoctrination ceremony recited a version of the mantra from the Dune film by David Lynch:

"It is by will alone I set my mind in motion	 	 
It is by the juice of Safu that lips acquire stains	 	 
That thoughts acquire speed	 	 
The stains become a warning	 	 
It is by will alone I set my mind in motion"

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I thought. This is all nice and edgy, even down to the inverted pentagram emblem on the module housing—cute touch. At the time I thought this was pure artistic embellishment, a Sachsian addition to make a point about neocolonialism or something like that. I thought it was a farce.

But would you believe…

that the same thing took place on the Apollo missions? When researching this essay in the days after attending the show, to my surprise I learned it was just so.

The first instance is from the television and radio broadcast of Apollo 8, the first human visit to (orbit around) the moon. It was Christmas Eve and the crew, floating above the Moon’s surface, addressed their live audience by reciting together the first ten verses from the book of Genesis.

[More about the Apollo 8 story here]

The second instance is from Apollo 11, the first human moon landing. Buzz Aldrin, Lunar Module Pilot, had tucked away into his personal items a wafer, a sip of wine and a cup. His original intention was to recite a passage from the book of John on air as part of the broadcast from the moon, however NASA advised him against it, and at the last minute he performed the ritual off the air.

Chalice and bag used by Buzz Aldrin to observe the Lord’s Supper upon landing on the moon.

As this article by Time magazine explains, after the Christmas broadcast a few months earlier there was some controversy around these religious expressions, which caused Buzz to abort his plan:

Atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair sued, arguing that the astronauts were government employees and therefore their actions violated the separation of church and state. The Supreme Court dismissed the case—for lack of jurisdiction—but it created enough of a stir that NASA wanted to avoid any such distractions from their missions.

A FEW takeaways:
  • Apparently the Supreme Court has no say over what happens on the Moon.
  • Thanks to it being a private enterprise (not supported by tax dollars), the Tom Sachs Space Program should be able to happily adopt whatever indoctrination practices it so chooses.

Before writing this essay, I had no idea about the Bible recital and the Holy Communion on the Moon. For those who were alive back then and followed the Apollo broadcasts, did this figure prominently in your minds? Was it met with raised eyebrows, or with broad consent? What really gets me is that, amazingly, Tom Sachs’ “Indoctrination” is not so far from reality at all.

7. Fiddling with cameras

Witnessing the full six-hour performance of the Europa Mission, the viewers are constantly aware of the presence of cameras. Cameras here, cameras there, all an essential burden in presenting the story to the audience.

At the Mission Control desk sits the Capsule Communicator—CAPCOM—performed by former Tom Sachs astronaut Sam Ratanarat. (According to NASA policy, the role of CAPCOM is always to be filled by a former astronaut.) Throughout the performance Ratanarat is constantly requesting repositioning and adjustments of camera units such as the following:

Cinderblock Cameras1&2 #tomsachseuropa

A post shared by Tom Sachs (@tomsachs) on

And while the cameras are constantly trained and retrained on the astronauts and their operations, the Flight Director—FLIGHT—performed by Tom Sachs, is constantly dictating which of the many camera feeds should be shown on the primary screen on top of the big board at Mission Control at any given moment.

With this, the audience has the special obligation to watch the broadcast at the same time as the broadcast is being assembled and directed. You’re watching the show in the raw. It’s like watching a movie, at the same time as watching the directing of the movie, which can be enjoyable in its own way.

When watching the Europa performance, part of me thought it was just the cleverness of “Tom Sachs theatre” that the “actors” (astronauts and support crew) would break the fourth wall by making meta-references to the cameras.

But wouldn’t you know it? The Apollo broadcasts were much of the same.

As de Monchaux recounts, when Buzz Aldrin was making his descent down the ladder, to take his first step onto the Moon, it took over a minute to ensure the TV camera was properly adjusted. I originally found this surprising, the idea that NASA would hold everything—right at the decisive moment—just to fiddle with the camera. But then of course I had to remind myself, that the TV broadcast was everything, because Apollo was, at its core, a media event.

As the first Moon EVA was underway, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were preparing for Neil’s famous first step, and they had to be sure to get it captured on the TV camera. Reading through the official transcript, between the astronauts and mission control (that is, Capcom Bruce McCandless and the Flight Director Clifford E. Charlesworth), it is striking just how much dialog was devoted to camera matters:

109:21:22 McCandless: (This is) Houston. Roger. We copy. Standing by for your TV.

FLIGHT: Capcom, Flight. Do you verify TV circuit breaker in?
CAPCOM: I mentioned it. Let me check.
FLIGHT: Verify it.

109:21:39 Armstrong: Houston, this is Neil. Radio check.

109:21:42 McCandless: Neil, this is Houston. Loud and clear. Break. Break. Buzz, this is Houston. Radio check, and verify TV circuit breaker in.

109:21:54 Aldrin: Roger, TV circuit breaker's in. And read you loud and clear.

109:22:06 McCandless: And we're getting a picture on the TV.

109:22:09 Aldrin: You got a good picture, huh?

109:22:11 McCandless: There's a great deal of contrast in it; and currently it's upside-down on our monitor, but we can make out a fair amount of detail.

109:22:28 Aldrin: Okay. Will you verify the position - the opening - I ought to have on the (16 mm movie) camera?

109:22:34 McCandless: Stand by. (Long Pause)

109:22:48 McCandless: Okay. Neil, we can see you (on the TV) coming down the ladder now. (Pause)


109:23:25 McCandless: Buzz, this is Houston. F/2 (and)...

109:23:28 Armstrong: Okay, I'm at the...(Listens)

109:23:29 McCandless: ...1/160th second for shadow photography on the sequence camera.

109:23:35 Aldrin: Okay.


109:24:12 Armstrong: Okay. I'm going to step off the LM now. (Long Pause)

109:24:23 Armstrong: That's one small step for (a) man; one giant leap for mankind. (Long Pause)

This transcript, it really brings me back to the Tom Sachs performance. But it’s not like the Tom Sachs team was aiming to directly emulate the dialog of the Apollo mission. Rather, they were simply working to produce their own real-time broadcast of the Europa mission, and apparently it just takes a lot of constant discussion and attention on the cameras to do so.

a makeshift contraption:

Looking at Apollo as Media Event explains a lot. The point wasn’t just to go to the Moon, it was to put on a live show of going to the Moon for the world to see. With this in mind, there was one detail about the Apollo TV broadcast that I found particularly surprising and funny. Here’s what happened:

A problem originated, as de Monchaux recounts, all the way back in 1961. NASA’s System Engineers—who weren’t as savvy with the “Media Event” basis for the whole thing—drastically under-allocated bandwidth for the TV signal, deciding to provide a mere 700mhz. De Monchaux writes:

This was a fraction of that apportioned for example, to telemetry, or to monitoring the astronauts heartbeat or temperature. Once this 1961 decision had been embedded in the systems architecture, the so-called, SBAND transmission guidelines might have well been carved in stone.

Then, a few years down the line NASA officials came to realize realize the consequence of this early decision:

NASA officials were furious at the thought that the 1961 allocation might jeopardize a broadcast from the moon’s surface.

So, in order to fit the TV picture into the meager bandwidth, NASA had no choice but to reduce the image quality. The most they could afford was one fourth of the resolution (320 lines) and one third of the frame-rate (20fps) of standard television.

Ok, ok this is only fair, NASA made their bed and now they had to lie in it. But here’s the kicker: this reduced format was totally incompatible with terrestrial television infrastructure. Still, the ground stations ordained by NASA to receive the undersized signal could display it on their own special monitors, so it was just a matter of conversion. And how did they convert it? Get this:

They just pointed a standard TV camera at the special monitor!

What a perfectly Rube Goldberg solution. It sounds just like something that Tom Sachs would do. You can read more about this crude yet effective conversion process here.

suggestion for TOM:

You have such an impressive and diverse array of cameras feeding into Mission Control to tell the story. Here’s an idea for one more: how about putting a tiny camera in the Excursion Module during the the re-docking? That way, during the waltz sequence on stage, the audience can see the graceful joining of the two craft from the point of view of the astronauts. The image might look something like this:

The Apollo 10 Lunar Module "Snoopy" rendezvous with the Command Module "Charlie Brown" after coming within 10 miles of the Moon's surface.
The Apollo 10 Lunar Module “Snoopy” rendezvous with the Command Module “Charlie Brown” after coming within 10 miles of the Moon’s surface.

8. Child’s Play:

In a way, the Europa performance feels like watching a collection of grown-up kids act out their fantasy with the help of homemade props and fueled by pure imagination. Of course, the quality level is a little higher because the performers have the discipline and talent and seriousness of adults. (Not that kids at play aren’t serious in their own way) And all this is a fine way of looking at performance art, sure. But was Apollo all too different?

Take a look at this headline from the day of the Moon landing:

This headline gets into the state of mind of a child playing pretend. What else of interest would a moon landing entail?

“Astronauts land on plain; collect rocks, plant flag”. This reads like something a young child would come up with. Besides being bombastic and grandiose, it is charming and funny and unabashed. I mean, when you think about it, what else is there to do on the first trip to the Moon?

After that, well, if I could put myself in the state of mind of child-like make-believe, the next thing I’d like to do as a triumphant astronaut explorer would of course be to take a phone call from the President. Wouldn’t you know, this is just what happened:

All of this pretend play feels very Sachsian. It feels slightly silly. For example, in the Europa Show one of the first things the astronauts deployed on their Europan excursion was the hibachi barbecue. In the audience you’d think: what an absurd thing to do, bring a hibachi and have a picnic. And then you look at real life and realize it’s not much less absurd. Look at some of the activities that were performed on the moon:

  • Alan Shepard played golf on the Moon on Apollo 14
  • On Apollo 14, Stuart Roosa brought a bag of tree seeds to the moon and back. Then back on Earth they were planted all over as “Moon Trees
  • David Scott conducted a science-class demonstration, dropping a hammer and feather and seeing which one hits the ground first, on the Moon on Apollo 15, to commemorate the pioneering scientific work of Galileo.
  • And of course, astronauts brought a car to the Moon for the last three missions Apollo 15, 16, and 17. (How all-american is that by the way? In America, we love our cars so much that we bring them to the Moon.)
Imagination, make believe

The Tom Sachs Space Program reminds me of this fantastic radio story about a father, Jim Steinfels, who together with his kids, constructed a home-built Naval ship in their driveway and created a whole pretend world for his children to live in over many years. Everyone in the family had a role in running the ship, they had to work together to develop and maintain their resources in ever dedicated service to the mission. Just like Team Sachs, they all took this pretend play very seriously.

[from This American Life, episode 566, act I]

Examples like the Europa Mission, or the Steinfels ship remind us of the thin line between pretend play and real life. Play is an important part of development and health, it is in our biology. So pretend play is a very practical thing, with social, creative, intellectual, and organizational benefits. In President Kennedy’s “We choose to go to the Moon” speech, one of the reasons he gives for going to the Moon is:

… because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills …

This reason is as true for Apollo as it is for the Tom Sachs Space Program as it is true for the Stienfels family. In each case, the participants rose to the challenge and made beautiful and valuable and meaningful accomplishments that they would not have otherwise. As Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge”, and so imagination might be the greatest fuel, and also the greatest product of both Space Programs.

Ideas for future make-believe Space Programs:
  • For astronauts’ return: US Customs process?
  • Selfie stick
  • Instead of installing an American flag, future astronauts might install a wifi router.
  • Astronauts might receive a message like the following on their mobile devices: “This App Would like to use your location, is this ok? Yes/No”, for example when posting a review of the local area to Yelp or similar.
  • Somehow incorporate a peacock element into the Space Program, maybe as lander nickname, as visual theme, or actually bring a peacock (see section 4).
  • In Apollo, Mission Control sometimes used coded phrases to warn the astronauts for example, that their metabolic rates are too high. Future Space Programs might incorporate or exaggerate this, for example, Pig Latin, which would let the audience in on the joke.
  • Perhaps install an art museum on the new world. (Compare: Apollo 12 installed an art museum on the moon)
  • Future astronauts might want to bring a dog. To more fully espouse American and domestic traditions, bringing man’s best friend could be just the thing. Not to mention adorable.


Having witnessed the Europa Mission of the Tom Sachs Space Program, I’m not too sad to have missed the Apollo Program. I now feel well-informed enough. Everything I need to know I learned from de Monchaux. And Everything I need to feel, I felt from Tom Sachs. Thanks, Nicholas and Tom.

But, is the art truthful?

On the day when I saw Space Program Europa, even though I knew I was watching an elaborate fiction, I somehow felt it was deeply truthful, maybe in the way it captured and represented our common dreams as people.

Looking back on it now, I am reminded of what Werner Herzog calls “Ecstatic truth”. In this article by Roger Ebert, he explains just what this means:

There are deeper strata of truth in [art], and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.

If Sachs had merely gone for a historically accurate reproduction of Apollo, it would have been quite boring and devoid of soul. But thanks to, fabrication, imagination, and stylization, we can access deeper truths. That is what caused the audience to repeatedly break out into joyous applause whenever there was a small mission victory, because we were uplifted to face a true picture of human ingenuity and exploration.

When asked about how just how real his Space Program is, Tom Says:

… this space program is real because it wins hearts and minds.

At the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the 6-hour long performance, is billed as a “demonstration” of the sculptures. But isn’t that a very museum-like way to put it? For those in attendance, the show transcended this designation. The crew went to Europa. And in doing so, the sculptures were transformed into something else: artifacts. They are now imbued with the marks and history of the mission. If you go to see the exhibit, don’t forget that you are looking at objects that took us across the solar system, to the moon Europa and back.

And if you want to see the “demonstration” for yourself, it will be performed again January 13, 2017. Go here for tickets. I’d also recommend you read de Monchaux’s book.


Question for Tom: The ascent stage?

In Space Program: Europa, the whole Lunar Excursion Module took off from the planet to reunite with the Command and Service Module. Was this intentional? For Apollo, they departed in only the top portion, the Ascent Stage. Why did you decide to change this? Is it because the true Sachsian ethos is to “Leave no Trace”, in other words, not leave any garbage behind?

As an aside, when reading about the two-stages of the Lunar Module, I came across this excellent article on the explosive guillotine used to separate the two states on takeoff.

Here’s a nice painting of ascent stage taking off. Good thing that explosive guillotine did its job.

Full CBS Broadcast

This series of videos of the original CBS Apollo 11 broadcast features some wonderful computer animation sequences explaining the various stages of flight. It was uploaded by youtuber EnsignInRed in six parts: [1 2 3 4 5 6]

Here’s part 1:

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