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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The slow-scan monitor had persistent phosphor to make up for the slower scan rate, and as a result the movement of the astronauts looked ghostly and jerky, he explains. (Later moon landings used a more conventional TV broadcast system.)

The Apollo 11 TV signal was captured at NASA ground stations with 85-foot antennas in Spain, Australia and the Mojave Desert. NASA also borrowed a 210-foot radio astronomy antenna in Australia for the occasion. The signals were converted to broadcast format on-site and sent to Houston for redistribution to the TV networks. Both the slow-scan feed and the broadcast format were recorded on-site in case the live broadcast failed. The converted signals were routed through a single point in Houston so that NASA could cut off the signal if there were an "incident," Nafzger explains.

But that was the least of his worries.

"The night we landed and did the moonwalk, that is when I became scared," he recalls. Before that point, there hadn't been as much pressure to broadcast the proceedings in real time. But after the safe landing, "they were saying that they had better be able to see this on TV, and 600 million people were watching. Something as simple as plugging a wrong patch or pushing a wrong button would mean that no one would see it," Nafzger says.

Indeed, the camera had been installed on the lander upside down, Nafzger recalls. The TV technicians heard of this at the last minute and scrambled to install converters at the ground stations. The first few seconds of broadcast were upside down because the operator at the Mojave Desert ground station who understood the converter had left for the day, Nafzger recalls.

If the original tapes could be found, he estimates that they would appear three times clearer than the broadcast images. "Taking the clean data and extracting it in a digital high-definition format would let you go frame-by-frame and remove the noise, smearing, contrast problems and other things that were man-made, mostly by the original conversion. The tapes are worth getting just for that reason -- absolutely," Nafzger says.

He and others have been trying to do just that. But NASA has had at least 220,000 tapes of that variety in storage at some time, of which only about 15 might be the lost Apollo 11 tapes, he notes.

"We have gone through landfills on the tops of mountains. I have looked through rooms the size of two or three football fields, filled with rows of shelves going up 30 feet, and we have looked on every shelf that might contain the right tapes," Nafzger says. Tapes that were suspected of being the right ones were heated for hours in dry vegetable steamers to make sure the oxide was fixed to the substrate before Nafzger's team attempted to read them. Goddard has preserved the necessary 1-in. tape drives, so Nafzger did not have the refurbishing task that Wingo faced.

Nafzger is currently preparing a report on the results of the search and cannot discuss them until NASA releases the report, the date of which is uncertain. "But since I am not running down the street waving a flag and shouting 'Eureka!' you can draw your own conclusions. The big picture is that there is an explanation for everything," he says.

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