It was in May 2015, a few weeks after launching his website exhaustively chronicling NASA’s 1972 Apollo 17 mission—the last manned mission to the moon—that Ben Feist received a note from a NASA scientist named Noah Petro pointing out a mistake. Naturally, Feist was thrilled.
He’d been receiving notes from what he affectionately calls “the space nerd community” ever since a beta version of “Apollo 17 in Real Time” went live in April. A six-year labour of love, the site’s traffic increased exponentially that December, which coincided with the mission’s 43rd anniversary. People could follow the mission literally to the second; some hardcore space enthusiasts even adjusted their sleep schedule to match that of the astronauts.
At some point that month, “Apollo 17 in Real Time” drew the attention of the Reddit community. Suddenly, there were as many as 600 people at a time downloading its rich-media content and swallowing up bandwidth.
“I’m a computer science guy, so I was proud that I’d made a web server system that could withstand Reddit,” says Feist, a digital agency veteran who is currently senior vice-president, director of technology at Toronto’s Wunderman Thompson (formerly Blast Radius). “It got more traffic than anything I’ve ever done in my professional career, which really surprised me.”
Feist was thrilled by “Apollo 17 in Real Time’s” success, but Petro’s e-mail was particularly meaningful. Love from Reddit and space nerds was great and all, but getting onto NASA’s radar was a big deal. He had no idea at the time just how big.
In fact, Petro’s e-mail would be the beginning of Feist’s own personal rocket ride, one that led to a part-time job with NASA and the chance to meet with—and have his work corrected by—key figures in the U.S. space program.
In January this year, Feist found himself on the red carpet at the Sundance Film Festival for the premiere of the acclaimed documentary Apollo 11, for which he had developed a software solution that cleaned up the fidelity of more than 11,000 hours of conversation between Mission Control and the Apollo astronauts on the most famous NASA mission of them all. Feist’s name appears three times in the Apollo 11 credits: “Historical and Technical Consultant,” “Audio Restoration Lead,” and “Software Development.”
Growing up on Delaware Ave. in Toronto’s Little Portugal neighbourhood, space exploration held about as much attraction for Feist as it did any youngster. “I was as interested in this stuff as anybody else might have been, but I wasn’t going to space camp when I was eight or anything,” says Feist, who was recently dubbed “an esteemed member of the space-nerd firmament” by Vanity Fair magazine and was featured in a New York Times article noting his contributions to Apollo 11.
According to his father Harold, Ben was interested in pretty much everything as a youngster. “He told me I could say anything…” Harold confides, before recounting a story from his son’s childhood. When Ben was 12 or so, he was struggling at school. Testing showed, in Harold’s words, an “extraordinarily high” IQ. Ben’s problems at school weren’t borne out of an inability to learn, but out of boredom. When Harold told his son the good news, Ben was upset: “Now they’re going to expect me to do stuff,” he told his dad.
One thing Feist did demonstrate fairly young was an aptitude for technology. That has translated into a long career with a string of digital marketing shops, including Vickers & Benson, Organic, SapientNitro, Taxi and Blast Radius.
But Feist has scaled back his advertising work, having taken on the role of spaceflight data management and visualization researcher with NASA—spending about one week a month at either the Goddard Space Flight Center in Washington, D.C. or the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
His improbable journey from advertising to the world’s leading space agency began in his early 20s, during the dark ages of the pre-HTML web. Poking around the information superhighway, he discovered a site called the Lunar Surface Journal, featuring written transcripts of all the Apollo missions.
“I remember stumbling across it and saying ‘Oh my God, the depth and richness of content here,” Feist says with a laugh. “You can actually read what the astronauts were saying in 1969? That’s insane.” Feist was working as a CD-rom developer at the time, and immediately started thinking about how he could bring the transcripts to life through a marriage of audio and video, allowing people to follow along with the mission on their computer. The idea never came to fruition. “It was always such a Herculean-level task that I never really embarked on it,” he says.
Fast-forward to 2009, and Feist was pondering a way to create a real-time web version of the Apollo 17 mission from blastoff to splashdown back on Earth eight days later. Apollo 17 wasn’t included on the Lunar Surface Journal site, which is apt since it’s a mission that is largely overlooked by the public. While it lacked the sexiness of Apollo 11 and the drama of Apollo 13, the Apollo 17 mission is notable both for being the last mission to the moon and for its inclusion of lunar module pilot Harrison Schmitt, the only trained geologist to walk on the moon.
The timing for Feist’s personal mission was fortuitous, since the Johnson Space Center had recently dumped thousands of hours of audio logs from those missions—Feist describes them as “giant .wav files”—onto the Internet Archive. His goal was to match those logs, which weren’t time-synced, with often messy transcripts, and create a second-by-second recreation—complete with videos and photos—of the entire Apollo 17 mission.
It was an undertaking that represented not just one small step for Feist, but an unfathomably huge leap into the unknown. For six years, he would leave his day job at Taxi, where he worked as vice-president of technology, and spend his evenings listening to crackly recordings from a nearly 40-year-old space mission that had largely faded from public consciousness.
“It was a lot of hours, but how many hours do people spend reading a novel to unwind?” says Feist. “You don’t count that as work. I was essentially listening to an audiobook and while I was reading along, I was correcting the written book.”
In a way, he says, his time working in agencies taught him how to compartmentalize the work, juggling a challenging career with a demanding and sometimes all-consuming hobby. “[Agency work] trains you how to switch channels as you move from one client to another,” he says. “You train yourself to take an interest in that other meeting, even if the really interesting problem was in that last meeting.”
Noah Petro remembers being fascinated—and a little awed—by the work Feist had put into “Apollo 17 in Real Time.”
“I first emailed him, probably either saying that his site was totally awesome, but also possibly pointing out something that might have needed correction in the transcript for the mission,” he says. Feist wrote back thanking him for the note, and the two men soon struck up a friendship, e-mailing and exchanging phone calls.
By this time “Apollo 17 in Real Time” had become a modest success, even garnering a 2016 Webby Award nomination in the science category (it lost to a site called Science Friday), but Feist was keen to evolve it beyond a mere “Internet curiosity.”
His idea was to create a visual representation of the Lunar Roving Vehicle’s journey—known as “traverses” in space lingo—across the surface of the moon. There was no video record of these journeys (the rover’s TV transmitter was always turned off on these sojourns, since it bounced around too much to send a reliable signal), but NASA had captured audio of the events.
One day, Feist asked Petro if NASA had any data that might be suitable for creating a visual representation of those journeys. “He was like ‘That’s what I do,'” says Feist. He soon had in his possession NASA’s ultra-high resolution images of the moon, which he used to create a digital representation of Lunar Roving Vehicles drives across the surface.
“I e-mailed Noah and said ‘I made something with all that data you gave me. Check it out,'” Feist recalls. Petro called him back within five minutes. “He said to me ‘You need to get down here and present this. You’ve just used LRO data to recreate portions of the Apollo 17 mission.'”
“What attracted me to his work was the compilation of data regarding the mission, and that he was able to show what the crew did while on the lunar surface,” says Petro. “This was valuable for my research, as it helped place the [geological] samples the crew collected into a proper context when they were collected, which is essential in interpreting their histories, something that has been challenging in the past.”
Petro invited Feist to present his work to his colleagues at Goddard on the 44th anniversary of the Apollo 17 mission. “It was the perfect cherry on top,” Feist remembers thinking. “I got to present at NASA and now it’s done.”
NASA was intrigued by the tools Feist had developed and was curious about applying them to other missions. “Ben’s ability to take various data—images, transcripts, etc.—and tie them all together in time is an incredibly useful tool for understanding the samples and what they are telling us,” explains Petro.
“I said ‘I’m glad you’re going to do something with my idea’ and they said ‘We’re not doing anything. You’re going to do something with your idea,'” says Feist, who was subsequently invited to start working with NASA.
“In my head I was going ‘Can I get the time off work? I’m super not qualified to be out in the field with astronauts, but of course I said ‘Yep, let’s do it.'”
Since then, Feist has become something of a rock star among the space nerd community, which is ironic since his younger sister Leslie—a Grammy nominated star who performs under the family surname—is literally an internationally acclaimed rock/pop star.
She joined her older brother on the red carpet at the Sundance film festival, where director Todd Douglas Miller introduced his critically lauded film Apollo 11 chronicling the 1969 moon landing.
“We had a great moment where we both realized ‘What the hell is going on here?'” says Ben of attending Sundance with his sister. “I get to invite my sister to my screening at Sundance? When did this happen?”
Ben had previously worked with Miller and his team on a short film dedicated to the Apollo 17 mission called The Last Steps. “They said ‘We want you on the team for our Apollo 11 project, and I was like ‘Cool, I’m not an expert on Apollo 11, but I’ll be part of the team.’ Now I’m an expert on Apollo 11.”
Feist’s contribution was cleaning up the fidelity of the approximately 11,000 hours of discussions between the Johnson Space Center and the Apollo 11 astronauts that were used for the film, fixing technical problems in the original recording made by the University of Texas at Dallas (“everybody sounded worried,” says Feist). Many of these discussions haven’t been heard since the day they first took place.
Feist is currently incorporating the newly reconstructed recordings into a website he is building dedicated to the 1969 mission. But where he had the luxury of time to work on “Apollo 17 in Real Time” he’s staring at a very real countdown for the site dedicated to Apollo 11, which marks its 50th anniversary this summer.
“It’ll be done by June, come hell or high water,” he says. “It’s been a less pleasurable experience [than creating the Apollo 17 site] because it’s turned from a hobby into a job, with a deadline.”
Right now, he’s not sure what his next mission will be. He reveals that he recently received an e-mail from Gerry Griffin—former director of the Johnson Space Center and flight director for all of the Apollo program’s manned missions—about creating something similar to “Apollo 17 in Real Time” from the 30-track audio recordings of the famed Apollo 13 mission.
Griffin, now 84 and retired, was supposed to lead the lunar landing team in Mission Control for that mission, which was scuttled after the oxygen tank explosion, an incident that introduced “Houston, we have a problem” into the lexicon. Fortunately for Griffin, he contacted a renowned problem solver.