In a year from now we will be celebrating the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.* With luck, those celebrations will include recognition of a unique accomplishment that is part of the Apollo 11 story but that is widely unknown: the work of Larry Baysinger—a man from my home town of Louisville, Kentucky—who independently detected signals from the Apollo 11 astronauts as they walked on the lunar surface. Baysinger’s accomplishments were recorded and promptly published in the Louisville Courier-Journal, by another Louisvillian by the name of Glenn Rutherford, who later went on to be editor of the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Louisville, The Record.
Rutherford was a 23-year-old reporter for the Courier-Journal, and his article about Baysinger was published under the headline “Lunar Eavesdropping: Louisvillians hear moon walk talk on homemade equipment”. Baysinger was a technician for Louisville’s WHAS 840 AM radio, and only a few years older than Rutherford. The story garnered some attention for Baysinger at the time. He was interviewed by the Collins Radio Company, who made the communications equipment that was used for the Apollo, Gemini and Mercury programs. They were very impressed that anyone could detect the Apollo signals with home-built equipment. However, in time the story faded from view. In 2009, when I first learned of the story, I saw just how much it had faded by doing searches for information using keywords such as “Baysinger” and “Apollo” in Google, as well as in EBSCO and JSTOR databases. These searches yielded no references to Baysinger’s work. Searching “Lunar Eavesdropping” yielded no returns of any sort at all. (Today such searches return more results, thanks in part to a 2010 article about Baysinger that I wrote for the National Association for Amateur Radio.)
I learned about the story thanks to a discussion between Rutherford and me about some of the research Henry Sipes and I had going on at Otter Creek-South Harrison observatory. Rutherford had written about this research in a July 2009 article in The Record. Our discussion drifted into the issue of Kentuckians doing scientific research. That reminded Rutherford of the story of Baysinger’s work, and he told me the story. I later had the pleasure of speaking to Baysinger directly. It was remarkable that these two gentlemen, forty years later, should both still be here in Louisville, just a phone call away!
Baysinger told me that his Apollo lunar eavesdropping project arose because in the late 1960’s he was an amateur radio astronomer with an interest in NASA, in astronomy, in UFOs, and in other such things that were hot topics at a time when America was on the verge of landing its first men on the moon. He experimented with satellite tracking and capturing pictures of Earth transmitted from weather satellites. He had some success in these matters—for example, he was able to print out crude images from weather satellites using an impact printer that printed using carbon paper. These interests and efforts led to the idea that he might independently verify the information that NASA had been providing about the Apollo program. Could he get unedited, unfiltered information about the Apollo 11 landing by eavesdropping on the radio signals transmitted from the lunar surface? And could he find out things that NASA did not want the public to know about? But most of all, successfully detecting a transmission from the lunar surface would be a great technical accomplishment.
According to Baysinger, various local experts had said that it could not be done. However, information about the communication frequencies used by the Apollo missions was widely available. The March and June 1969 issues of CG: The Radio Amateur’s Journal, for example, contained this sort of information. If a person could build a good radio, he or she should be able to listen to Apollo. And not only did Baysinger listen to Apollo, but he recorded it, and saved those recordings for decades. And you can listen to them! But that will be the subject of the next post! (click here for it)
* I note that while the Apollo 11 landing was a great achievement, worth celebrating, the fact that since the Apollo program we have not returned to the moon, or even left Earth orbit, is hugely disappointing. When I was a kid I thought average people might be able to travel the solar system in the early 21st century!