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First Words from the Moon

July 20, 1969: Motorola equipment relays first words from the moon

Motorola radio equipment relayed the first words from the moon to Earth on July 20, 1969. S-band transponders aboard the Apollo 11 lunar module and command module transmitted telemetry, voice communications, biomedical data and television signals between Earth and the moon. Motorola supplied the specially developed backpack antenna worn by astronaut Neil Armstrong, as well as equipment to process TV signals on Earth, and equipment responsible for range safety and precision tracking on the Saturn V rocket during the launch phase.

Poster commemorating Motorola communications equipment used in the Apollo space program and the first moon landing, USA, circa 1969

Motorola was an early NASA supplier

When the U.S. government created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958, Motorola, Inc. became one of its first providers of space communications. Among the company’s early contributions were transponders on board Mariner II, launched in 1962 to explore the planet Venus.

Transponders provided radio communication between space vehicles and Earth, transmitting voice, messages, video signals and data. These self-operating radios were essential to track the speed and location of the spacecraft and to retrieve data from and operate the electronic instruments aboard the spacecraft.

Apollo missions and the first words from the moon

In the 1960s, the U.S. space program set a goal to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth. The program involved the support of thousands of U.S. companies, scientists and engineers, including a large team from Motorola.

Motorola supplied Command Receivers used to pick up vital control and emergency signals sent from Earth during NASA's 1961 Project Mercury space flight manned by Astronaut Alan Shepard. The two Motorola receivers, one primary and one back-up, were completely transistorized and so compact that some sections had a component density of almost 90,000 radio parts per cubic foot.

In 1966 Surveyor I, an unmanned spacecraft that took more than 11,000 photographs to map the moon's surface, used a Motorola radio transponder.

Motorola Western Center Program Team, Collins/Apollo unified S-band equipment, USA, June 7, 1965.

Pictured (top, left to right): Herm Truitt, project leader; W. Jones, assistant program manager; J. Papke, project test engineer; R. Drilling, configuration manager; E. Oldaker, logistics; (bottom, left to right): R. Hoffman, contract manager; D. Krigbaum, tech editor; B. Bruce, pur. program administrator; P. McReynolds, prod. engineer; Q. Turner, program engineer.

Every Apollo mission used Motorola communications equipment and systems from pre-launch checkout through lunar exploration to splashdown. A Motorola S-band radio in the Apollo command module provided the crew’s only communications link with Earth from beyond 30,000 miles away.  The small unit, produced by the Motorola Government Electronics Division, required 35 watts to communicate with Earth from the vicinity of the moon, less power than used by a refrigerator lightbulb.

Motorola engineers checking an S-band radio transponder for physical compatibility in a model of a NASA Apollo command module, 1966.

In 1968, NASA began manned Apollo flights that led to the Apollo 11 mission that landed the first human on the moon in July 1969. Apollo 11 was particularly significant for hundreds of Motorolans who designed, tested and produced its sophisticated electronics. Motorola supplied thousands of semiconductor devices, ground-based tracking and checkout equipment, and 12 on-board tracking and communications units. An "up-data link" in the Apollo's command module received signals from Earth to relay to other on-board systems. A Motorola transponder received and transmitted voice and television signals and scientific data.

Technician comparing the power used by a Motorola two-way radio unit used on the Apollo 11 Command Module to that of a refrigerator light bulb, USA, 1969.

Aboard Apollo's lunar excursion module (LEM), a Motorola transceiver sent radio signals to three Earth-based receiving stations where Motorola FM demodulators converted them for radio and television broadcast. Motorola also supplied the specially developed backpack antenna worn by Neil Armstrong.

Motorola VHF blade monopole communications antenna developed for astronauts' space suits during Apollo missions, 1966.  Right: Photograph of a man wearing an astronaut's spacesuit and backback equipped with a Motorola VHF blade monopole antenna, 1969.

Motorola equipment enabled millions of people to watch and listen on July 20, 1969, as astronaut Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon--250,000 miles (400,000 km) away--and announced, "That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."