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Vintage NASA Footage Revisited, Slowed Down

This week is a big one for the space community. NPR's Mark Stencel reported Thursday that President Obama has announced some changes to his space strategy. Though the future of manned space exploration remains unclear, this week marks an important anniversary for the space program.

On April 13, 1970, astronauts on the Apollo 13 mission were en route to a moon landing when an oxygen tank exploded. You've seen the movie: They survived, and their epic flight home became an iconic moment of scientific adventure. So 40 years later, at a time when the manned space program seems increasingly vulnerable, why not take a look back at a real film from those early days?

Here's a fantastic, high-definition transfer of a 16mm film of the launch of Apollo 11 on July 16, 1969. The original film ran at 500 frames per second, but this slowed version stretches about 30 seconds of real time to about eight minutes. The narrator is Mark Gray, the executive producer of Spacecraft Films, a production company specializing in archival footage from the space program.

The entire clip is worth watching, but the first three minutes are especially stunning. Watch for the liquid oxygen and kerosene as they billow up and then get sucked back down as thrust begins. The actual liftoff is at around 2:10.

Gray says that from the very beginnings of the rocket program, NASA would "set up 40-50 cameras at different angles, and they were used purely for engineering purposes." But as the program progressed, he says, so did the camera setups: "As the size of the rockets grew, the number of angles grew..." NASA was soon attaching cameras to the rockets, which would fall to the ground at various stages of the launch. It's odd to think that many of these films almost literally fell from space.

This particular clip comes from the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., where it would have been analyzed as just another piece of data. Although the beauty of the images was hardly considered at the time, Gray says that NASA took pains to acquire special cameras that could withstand the forces of a rocket launch: "It's kind of astounding how rudimentary the technology was, because we take it for granted today. Back then the best way was to set up dozens of cameras at high cost." Fortunately for us, NASA got its money's worth.

If you're interested in seeing other HD footage from the space program, check out Gray's Vimeo page, where he has more clips from Apollo 11 and other NASA missions.

Nate is an intern with NPR's science desk.