Apollo 11 50th Anniversary

Category: Innovation (small and large newsrooms)

Country/area: United States

Organisation: Florida Today and USA Today

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 16/07/2019

Credit: Bobby Block, Britt Kennerley, John Torres, Tim Walters, Mara Bellaby, Tom Mardis, Emre Kelly, USA Today’s Emergening tech team

Project description:

A celebration and remembrance of the people and engineering that made the first landing of humans on the moon possible, telling the story with text, video and augmented reality.

Impact reached:

Literally hundreds of thousands of people made the Apollo 11 moon landing possible, many in small but critical roles, from assembling spacesuits to cleaning offices to protecting what was a top-secret program of national importance and prestige. Our series of stories and videos brought these everyday heroes out of obscurity and gave them long overdue credit for their service to history. “You made me a legend to my family and community and across the county,” said Dorothy Johnson, who worked in NASA’s typing pool and was one of the African American “hidden figures” of NASA fame. Many hundreds of letters and emails expressing similar gratitude came pouring into the office. And for generations who weren’t born during Apollo, it gave them a chance to experience the launch of Apollo 11 as if it were a live event taking place today – to listen in on mission control, watch the footage and follow the rocket and spacecraft in AR, brining history to life while making it fresh, accessible and familiar. Tens of thousands used the 321 Launch App to create the excitement of that historic launch in the palms of their hands.

Techniques/technologies used:

The 321 Launch experience was built on the Unity game engine, but the app’s development wasn’t just limited to hardcore programming. Our emerging tech team in Washington, D.C. and space reporter Emre Kelly in Florida cracked open frayed Apollo-era presskits and books to find detailed mission parameters and design elements; NASA experts weighed on in tough decisions related to translating Saturn V from reality to 3D; and even veteran engineers who worked on the storied rocket offered their input. Professional video editing applications helped edit content to run in sync with the 3D events and the “live” chat on the Scribble platform, all of which focused on the mission as if it were happening in real-time.

What was the hardest part of this project?

The major challenges we faced were, first, how to create a virtual experience that would bring the wonder of Apollo to new audiences and generations, and, second, finding a fresh way to tell a well-trodden, 50-year-old story.

We chose augmented reality as the solution to the challenge of recreating the Apollo mission, from lift off to splash down, in real time. The sheer magnitude of the research and mathematical calculations to pull this off were extremely daunting. We had to follow a precise timeline for all events. We had to compute the complex trajectories of the Apollo 11 flight to such precision that it would match the actual path of the real rocket. This was done using Apollo-era documents and back-of-the-napkin calculations to ensure the AR rocket launched on time, separated from its stages properly, docked in orbit, touched down on the moon and completed its mission in real time exactly as did Apollo 11 in 1969. The AR model-building always showed the spacecraft in its proper position and made the experience – even the vibration and roar of the rocket engines – as real as possible.

The second challenge was no less formidable. Florida Today in Brevard Country, the so-called Space Coast and home of the Kennedy Space Center, was founded, in-part, to report on the moon program. Every major moon landing anniversary had been commemorated by the paper. What could we say this time that felt fresh? We decided to tell the story of the people of Apollo, to piece together the personal stories of aging workers who made the mission possible, from the most menial to the architects of the whole project. We used text, video, photos, a podcast and a documantry film to recreate their experiences and tell the story of a technological wonder.

What can others learn from this project?

Journalism isn’t always about sitting down in front of a keyboard and writing. For the Apollo project, it was about collaboration with a team of people journalists and heavy-duty programmers from the gaming industry. It was getting on the horn with a variety of sources, and staying in touch with them throughout the process to ensure accuracy. And in the end, it was about integrating them all together into a product that successfully merged cutting-edge tech, traditional journalism, and Space Race-era aesthetics. 

Project links: