Nvidia returns us to the moon in time for Apollo 11's 50th anniversary

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor

It’s bright on the moon.

That much is clear from a recreation of Apollo 11’s landing that Nvidia (NVDA) posted Friday. The undimmed sun blindingly flashes off the clear polycarbonate of Buzz Aldrin’s and Neil Armstrong’s helmets, then washes out what Aldrin called the “magnificent desolation” of the lunar surface.

The graphics-software vendor enhanced an earlier recreation of Apollo 11’s arrival on the Sea of Tranquility not just to salute that historic mission on its 50th anniversary, but also to show off its latest real-time ray-tracing reproduction of light playing off objects.

Nvidia got Aldrin to offer his own commentary on its version of his mission. Wearing a “Get Your Ass to Mars” t-shirt, the Apollo 11 lunar module pilot notes how it reminds him of what it was like to ascend and descend the stairs from the lunar module to the surface.

“That’s a pretty good jump,” Aldrin observes, then recalls how lunar gravity, at one-sixth that of Earth, was something he couldn’t entirely prepare for. “When I jumped back up, I underestimated me, and I overestimated gravity.”

Nvidia’s marketing exercise also serves to underscore what an enormous jump we’ve seen in our ability to follow what’s happening in space.

The blurry, black-and-white footage of Armstrong stepping on the moon now on frequent replays on TV is actually a third-generation copy. The video beamed down to Earth came in a 10 frames-per-second format incompatible with TV, so NASA converted it to the right format at a cost in quality and then saved on tapes… that at some point in the ‘70s, were themselves taped over, leaving only copies of those copies.

(Compared to that, the Nvidia recreation’s high-definition color looks almost fake. Or maybe that’s just because the spacesuits in it don’t show any obvious lunar dirt.)

Things could have been worse: On the next mission to the moon, Apollo 12’s TV camera failed after being mistakenly aimed at the sun, leaving Apollo 12 short on video. That mission, in which astronauts Alan Bean and Pete Conrad landed within sight of the Surveyor 3 unmanned lander sent to the moon in 1967 and returned with parts of that spacecraft, would be another fine subject to recreate in 3D.

Now, we’re accustomed to real-time video streaming not just from space, but from the boosters pushing a giant rocket to space before a precision landing on the Florida coast. Where we used to measure the download times for images to reach our homes in the months it would take for a National Geographic issue to arrive in the mail, we now only accept waits to download images when the speed of light and the limited bandwidth from Pluto impose them.

So watch the grainy video from 1969 one more time and appreciate how far we’ve come. Then hope we don’t have to wait another 50 years to see live color footage from astronauts on Mars.

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.