Stanley Lebar's camera brought '69 moonwalk into homes

From left, Stanley Lebar and Richard Nafzger, two engineers and former NASA employees, who were involved in the taping of the Apollo 11 moon landing, at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt
From left, Stanley Lebar and Richard Nafzger, two engineers and former NASA employees, who were involved in the taping of the Apollo 11 moon landing, at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt (Associated Press)
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 24, 2010

On July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong opened the hatch of the Apollo 11 lunar module and stepped onto the surface of the moon, a small camera captured the moment and sent pictures back to Earth, 239,000 miles away. At least 500 million people witnessed the long-unattainable milestone on television, as gray, halting images showed Armstrong and fellow astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin walking on the moon and planting the American flag.

Armstrong memorably described the accomplishment as "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

No one who heard those words was happier than Stanley Lebar. An engineer at a Westinghouse plant outside Baltimore, Mr. Lebar (pronounced luh-BAR) spent five years managing a NASA project to build the camera that went to the moon.

He and his team of 75 engineers used the emerging technology of microelectronics to make a mobile, compact camera that weighed only 7 pounds. Most TV cameras at the time weighed 700 pounds. The new camera had to survive the rigors of liftoff and space travel, it had to work in low light and it had to function in temperatures as high as 300 degrees Fahrenheit and as low as minus-250. Most important, it had to transmit clear black-and-white images that could be shown on television.

After solving these puzzles, Mr. Lebar faced another obstacle: He had to overcome the skepticism of some NASA officials, who considered his camera excess baggage and of no scientific value.

But Armstrong, who commanded the Apollo 11 mission, gave his nod of approval, and the camera went along. Much to everyone's relief, it worked flawlessly, providing a visual record of one of history's greatest feats of engineering and exploration.

The camera sent back clear, crisp images from moon, but after the electronic signal was converted to a format compatible with television, the pictures looked murky and dim.

"The comment was made then that if the video had looked like the live television everyone was used to," Mr. Lebar told TV Technology magazine in 2009, "no one would have believed that it was coming from the moon."

His engineering team also designed the first color cameras used in space, including one that was in the command module of Apollo 11 and took memorable images of Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon. Those color broadcasts earned Mr. Lebar a 1970 Emmy Award for "Outstanding Coverage of a Special Event."

Stanley Lebar was born July 29, 1925, in Richmond and grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. He was a ball-turret gunner in the Army Air Forces during World War II and graduated from the University of Missouri in 1950. He held engineering jobs in Ohio and New York before joining Westinghouse's aerospace division near Baltimore in 1953.

He worked primarily on airborne radar before being put in charge of the NASA camera project, and he also built cameras used on Skylab and the U.S.-Soviet Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975. He retired in 1986.

Mr. Lebar helped found Temple Beth Shalom in Arnold in 1961 and was a past president of the Friends of the Baltimore and Annapolis Trail (now Friends of Anne Arundel County Trails). He created the trail's planet walk, a scale model of the solar system along a 4.6-mile path.

He died Dec. 23 at age 84 at his home in Severna Park after recent lung cancer surgery.

Survivors include his wife of 61 years, Elaine Lebowitz Lebar of Severna Park; three children, Mark Lebar of St. Leonard, Scott Lebar of El Dorado Hills, Calif., and Randi Lebar of Springvale, Maine; and five grandchildren.

Knowing that the images transmitted by his camera were brighter and more vivid than the flickering shadows most people saw on television, Mr. Lebar devoted much of the final three years of his life to searching for the original NASA tapes. He and other engineers looked through thousands of boxes at the Washington National Records Center in Suitland and pursued leads all over the country, including visiting landfills.

It turned out that NASA had taken 70,000 reels of magnetic tape off its shelves and recycled them for later space missions, including Skylab and the space shuttle. Last year, NASA concluded that the Apollo 11 tapes recorded by Mr. Lebar's camera were probably lost forever.

"We all understood the importance of this event to history, to posterity, and so we all should have made sure those tapes were safe and secure," Mr. Lebar told The Washington Post in 2007. "I ask myself today, 'Why the heck didn't you think that way back then?' The answer is that I just assumed that NASA was going to do it. But, unfortunately, that was a bad assumption."

As a backup measure, Mr. Lebar helped lead a NASA effort to send kinescopes and footage from news archives to a Hollywood film restoration company for digital enhancement. Last July, at a news conference at the Newseum in Washington, he proudly watched the restored images that his camera had captured 40 years before. Armstrong's first steps never looked so good.

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