The lost NASA tapes: Restoring lunar images after 40 years in the vault

A Mac Pro and 40-year-old tape drives are helping restore the original Lunar Orbiter tapes

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However, the tapes were useless without compatible tape drives -- in this case, analog Ampex FR-900 reel-to-reel units. Weighing half a ton and resembling refrigerators, the drives were formerly used by the U.S. Air Force to record radar data but have not been manufactured since 1975. "There were probably thousands of them at one time, but as the radar stations refitted with new drives, most [of the old ones] were dumped in the ocean to make coral reefs," Evans says. There are "thousands" of the old drives off Kwajalein -- an atoll that's part of the Marshall Islands -- and Florida, she says.

She finally got a call from an Air Force base that had four of the old drives. She stored them, along with documentation and spare parts, at her home in Sun Valley, Calif., and tried to get funding to restore the tapes. None was forthcoming, so the machines gathered dust for two decades.

By 2006, the tapes -- still in JPL storage -- fell under a new NASA edict that no planetary data should ever be destroyed, Evans explains. However, by then she needed the storage area occupied by the tape drives for the veterinarian practice she and her daughter maintained. In an effort to preserve the drives, she submitted a white paper about the tapes and drives at a Lunar and Planetary Institute conference. After seeing the white paper in a blog post, Wingo contacted her and arranged to have the drives, and later the tapes, transported to Ames in rented trucks.

Then Wingo obtained a grant of $250,000 from NASA to get started. His largely volunteer crew was able to restore two of the drives using pieces from the other two, plus off-the-shelf parts and additional components that had to be custom-made.

"We had to pay big bucks to get the bearings replaced, the motors rebuilt and rubber parts cast. We had to dip the motors in liquid nitrogen to get the bearings off," he recalls.

Earthrise - new tech

Detail of the Earthrise picture taken by the first Lunar Orbiter in 1966, rendered with modern technology.

Click to view larger image

So far, all the tapes have proved usable. The data is read into a quad-processor Macintosh Pro workstation with 13GB of RAM and 4TB of storage. Data acquisition is done through a PCI Express card from Canadian firm AlazarTech that can read 180 million samples per second, although only 10 million are needed, Wingo says.

After capture, the images are processed with Adobe Photoshop and Igor Pro analysis software from WaveMetrics Inc. But the new plan is to move to a custom application written in C, largely because of its ability to take advantage of Mac OS X 10.6 (Snow Leopard). With Igor Pro and Photoshop, processing takes an hour for a high-resolution image and 20 minutes for a medium-resolution image. But after the switch to the C program, processing with the Snow Leopard version should be almost immediate, based on the testing that's been conducted, Wingo says.

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