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Bradford’s Brain Balloon #0024 – Apollo 11 Turns 50

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As my loyal follower already knows, I am a fan of space exploration. When I received an invitation to attend the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum’s 50th Anniversary Celebration of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing, I was over the moon. I have previously attended various events at the Air & Space Museum, but nothing that was this special. Jennifer purchased a new dress, we both got haircuts, I rented a tuxedo, I polished my Captain America cufflinks, and we prepared for an event of a lifetime. We were not disappointed; we were amazed at multiple points during the weekend. I am not going through every amazing moment, just the AV ones.

Seeing a Full-Size Saturn V Rocket, all 353 feet of it, projected on the Washington Monument is a moment I won’t forget. The Crawler Transport that was under the rocket is 25 feet tall; bringing the total height to about 36 stories. It is very hard to get a sense of scale of things when dealing with rockets and space. I have seen a Saturn V rocket many times at Kennedy Space Center (KSC). When I was an integrator, I was involved with the Saturn V Visitor Center at KSC (https://www.kennedyspacecenter.com/explore-attractions/race-to-the-moon). The rocket is laying down on its side in there. I have been inside the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), which you can literally see from miles away. Neither of those gave me a sense of scale that seeing the rocket full size on the Washington Monument.

The Washington Monument is 555 feet tall. I was in awe of how large Saturn V is when standing up. Adding in active projection mapping in addition made it seem like a living thing poised to launch into action. I am sure more information will come out, but I spotted eight projectors probably 25-30K Lumens. I think there would be another 20 or so closer to the Monument itself.

Beyond just the projection on the Monument there were five additional displays on each side as well as a display horizontally in the center of the scene. The five displays on each side were not the same proportions, the banks were mirrored across the Mall. The five displays, I think they were 10 mm LED video boards, were each individually addressable. There was open captioning and text on the header of the boards which I am not sure if projected or simply the video board with a piece of scrim over the front of it. This idea worked very well and is something AV designers should think about for the future.

These video surfaces all provided unique content. During the lift off sequence for example, the left display bank had a detail of the rocket on it without an umbilical, the right side had an umbilical disconnect as a detail. During a scene with Kennedy’s September 1962 Rice Speech about going to the moon had the banks displaying the crowd from that day. The center display showed a countdown clock before launch, then the display would show altitude and other information to tell the story.

Launch was a moment, not just for the audio impact but for the experience in the sea of people. The news indicated that there were about 60,000 people there each show. We saw the show twice. Each time the countdown reached zero the crowd would applaud. It was not the applause one gets at a concert or after a play. These were euphoric and supportive applause. The only other times I have experienced applause have been at actual launches. It is kind of like a launch itself, until you experience in person it is a hard thing to explain other than a visceral feel. The subwoofers and low frequency did a good job of keeping up with the launch effect. However, it is near impossible to simulate the impact and energy of a launch, the engines create so much acoustic energy that the air distorts. The water deluge under a rocket engine is not for cooling, it is to help dissipate the 160dB SPL plus energy to not damage the ship.

That is something that did not strike me at first, but it reinforces the size of scale of the Saturn V. I was probably 100 feet back from the video displays. The displays were probably 900 feet from the Monument. I do know that there were subwoofers and delay towers used as the viewing area was easily a half mile deep. Everything was scaled appropriately but the immensity was not lost. At times it became overwhelming of just how large things were, but that is reinforcing the realty.

The audio sounded like a nice stereo mix; I didn’t pay much attention to it. Yes, that is correct I didn’t pay attention to it. It was part of the experience and helped tell the story, I was too involved in the show. Yes, I said that. Like many other AV people, I cannot help but notice the audio and video system. I pick my cinema by the audio and video quality; I point out loudspeakers while riding Space Mountain. The story and experience drew me in and kept me engaged. I cannot remember the last time that happened.

Going to the Smithsonian to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of humans landing on the Moon is a once in a lifetime experience. I got to experience a lot of cool things during it. I got to spend time alone with Neal Armstrong’s A7 spacesuit. I heard Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins talk about the mission while being feet away. I got to talk with Charlie Bolden, former astronaut, and Director of NASA. I do feel a little bad for Adam Savage though; he did not get his chance to meet me. The coolest thing though was the experience on the Mall. I also really liked that the last showing was delayed to lineup the first step on the Moon and the video to line up to the minute, albeit 50 years apart. The experience was for all ages and all knowledge levels. The AV system did what it should do, support the experience.

Updated August 3, 2019

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The opinions expressed here are Bradford’s and AVNation’s. He does not speak for his employer.

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Bradford Benn

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