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Ancient IBM drive rescues Apollo moon data

By Tom Jowitt
November 12, 2008 12:00 PM ET - Valuable mission data gathered by NASA's Apollo missions to the moon 40 years ago looks like it may be recovered, thanks to a donation of an ancient IBM tape drive by a Sydney computer society.

The Apollo 11, 12 and 14 missions in the late 1960s and early 1970s gathered valuable data on moon dust for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration using 'dust detectors' that were invented by Perth physicist Brian O'Brien, according to ABC News in Australia.

This information on moon dust was apparently beamed back to earth and recorded onto 173 data tapes, stored at both NASA and Sydney University.

O'Brien published preliminary findings on the data, but after a lack of interest from the scientific community, the tapes on moon dust were placed into storage in the 1970s.

But it now seems that moon dust is a very important environmental problem indeed for NASA, especially as the U.S. agency considers building a base on the moon.

As NASA quickly discovered, moon dust is extremely abrasive, and according to astronauts whose space suits and equipment quickly became covered in it, it smelled like spent gunpowder. NASA said that the dust would often scratch lenses or corrode seals.

Unfortunately, according to O'Brien, NASA 'misplaced' its moon-dust tapes before they could be archived.

Thankfully, the tapes stored at Sydney University were still available. However, what was not readily available was a IBM 729 Mark V tape drive needed to read the data.

The IBM 729 magnetic tape drive was used by IBM from the late 1950s through the mid-1960s. It used a half-inch magnetic tape that was up to 2,400 feet in length on a reel measuring up to 10.5 in. in diameter.

When O'Brien learned of the tape loss, he was contacted by an Australian data recovery firm, SpectrumData, which offered to try to get hold of the information.

SpectrumData subsequently moved the tapes into a climate-controlled room, and it even managed to locate a very rare 1960s IBM729 Mark 5 tape drive at the Australian Computer Museum Society, which has agreed to loan the company the drive so that the data can be recovered.

Unfortunately, it seems that the tape drive, which is the size of a household fridge, is in need of some attention in order to get it working again.

"The drives are extremely rare; we don't know of any others that are still operating," Guy Holmes, CEO of SpectrumData, was reported as saying by ABC News.

"It's going to have to be a custom job to get it working again," he said. "It's certainly not simple, there's a lot of circuitry in there, it's old, it's not as clean as it should be, and there's a lot of work to do."

Holmes said he hopes to get the tape drive working by January, and he believes it will then only take a week or so to pull the data off the old tape drives.

Reprinted with permission from Copyright 2012 IDG, all rights reserved.
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