Speech recognition has come a long way in recent years. Look at Suri, Alexa and the brilliantly named Google Assistant! I never expected to hear that this technology would be used to analyze the conversations recorded from an old space flight.
There was a lot more said during the Apollo 11 missions besides “the Eagle has landed” and “that’s one step for man.” To help preserve and make accessible the thousands of hours of recorded mission audio, a team of researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas used speech recognition technology to unscramble and analyze the conversations between astronauts, mission control, and technicians across a quarter of a million miles of space.
Sometimes a technological advance can be a curse – especially if technology keeps galloping ahead at a breakneck pace. The analog audio tape technology available in the late 1960s must have seemed like a blessing at the time. The Apollo 11 mission was probably the biggest story since a curious fish decided to set foot on land 380 million years ago, but unlike that development, the first Moon landing could be recorded in more detail and more comprehensively than any other great event in history up to that time.
This was all new technology at the time and given the tapes are not collated and the voices not easily identified at times, something new was required.
Obsolescence was a particular problem because the tapes could only be played on a machine at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston called a SoundScriber, which used a manual crank to move from track to track. And on top of all of this, the recordings were raw. Nothing was edited or collated and there was nothing to show who was talking as many technicians spoke over one another.
According to Center for Robust Speech Systems (CRSS) founder and director Dr. John H.L. Hansen, using the Soundscriber would have required 170 years to handle the Apollo 11 mission tapes alone. Funded by a National Science Foundation grant, Hansen’s team in cooperation with the University of Maryland developed a new sound system that could do the same job in months.
The whole thing is quite fascinating. Check out the rest of the story at New Atlas.