Arts & Culture

Documentary explores Collins Radio's role in moon missions

A full-scale model of the Apollo Command Module was built in a Collins Radio laboratory in Cedar Rapids. The model helped engineers design the installation of the communications equipment.
A full-scale model of the Apollo Command Module was built in a Collins Radio laboratory in Cedar Rapids. The model helped engineers design the installation of the communications equipment.
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Rod Blocksome remembers well the day he saw Neil Armstrong take his historic first step on the moon and heard him utter the words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

It was July 20, 1969, and Blocksome was serving in the Air Force. He had just landed at his new assignment in Hawaii when he and others crowded around a TV to watch the footage beamed to Earth from the moon.

“We knew it was historic when we were watching it,” Blocksome said. “The whole world got to see Armstrong step off the lunar lander onto the surface of the moon ... and the genesis of the TV that made it possible started here in Cedar Rapids.”

More specifically, at Collins Radio Co. The work the company — now known as Collins Aerospace and until recently called Rockwell Collins — did to help NASA get Americans to the moon is the subject of a new documentary, “Moon Talk.” Produced by the Arthur A. Collins Legacy Association, it will premiere with a screening Dec. 21 at Collins Road Theatres in Marion.

That’s 50 years to the day since Apollo 8 became the first manned space flight to orbit the moon. Armstrong’s moon landing came seven months later.

The documentary, the first of three the association is producing, focuses on the work leading to the Apollo 8 flight. For six days, astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders relied on communication equipment developed by Collins Radio.

In the film, Michael M. Collins, the oldest son of company founder Arthur Collins, recalls how the astronauts’ Christmas Eve reading from the Bible was broadcast to listeners on Earth via Collins Radio technology.

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Beyond sharing the astronauts’ experiences with the wider world, the equipment gave them vital communication with NASA personnel and was their only link to home while in space.

“Arthur Collins was never very interested in publicity, especially for himself. So there were a lot of accomplishments that he and the company did in the early years that very few people knew about. It’s kind of an untold story,” Blocksome said.

Blocksome, who worked at Rockwell Collins for 42 years as an engineer, now volunteers at the company’s small museum and is a member of the Arthur A. Collins Legacy Association, a 501(c) 3 nonprofit. That group formed in 2014, and in 2015 the company gave them 300 pounds of 16 millimeter film that had been sitting in storage. On it, association members found footage from both NASA and from early company videographers, documenting the work with the space program.

The association then worked with Busbee Communications and Wired Production Group to create the documentary. In addition to the archival footage, it includes interviews with employees who worked on the NASA programs.

The next documentary they’re working on will focus on the Apollo 11 moon landing and subsequent flights, up to Apollo 17, including the role communications played in bringing astronauts on the disastrous Apollo 13 mission home safely. The final documentary will start in the 1950s and explore the years leading up to the moon missions.

“President Kennedy said, ‘We’re going to go to the moon before the end of the decade,’” Blocksome said. “But the technology — it all had to be invented.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

If you go

l What: “Moon Talk” screening

l When: 11:30 a.m. Friday

l Where: Collins Road Theatres, 1462 Twixt Town Rd., Marion

l Cost: Free

l Details: Find more information about the film and announcements of future screenings at arthurcollins.org.

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