Where are the Apollo videos you didn't see?


Anyone old enough to remember the night that men first walked on the moon will recall the ghostly images of Neil Armstrong's first step, beamed back from the camera on Apollo 11's lunar lander.

They were a thrilling testament to our highest technology - and yet oddly, disappointingly bad.

The contrast was too high, the images too smeary and muddy. Even in July 1969 we knew TV was better than that. Was this really all we got for all the risks taken and billions spent?

NASA, it turns out, had much better video from the moon all along - high-resolution, slow-scan TV direct from Tranquility Base and recorded on 14-inch reels of magnetic tape.

They had it, but then they lost it.

A two-year search by dedicated Apollo-era veterans has picked up the scent. But so far, the tapes - 12 to 15 reels in two or three cardboard boxes - are still AWOL, probably somewhere at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.

"For the sake of posterity and for the benefit of future generations, it is imperative that the search for the Apollo 11 magnetic data tapes be more vigorously pursued ... before the tapes deteriorate beyond repair," says John Sarkissian, in a report published in May. He is operations scientist of the CSIRO Parkes Observatory in Australia, site of a tracking station where some of the tapes were recorded.

His plea has been heard. Last week, as word of the missing tapes hit the news, NASA announced it would mount a formal search for the tapes, under the direction of a Goddard deputy director. The center will also preserve the antique gear needed to play back the tapes if they're found. Budget cuts had threatened to consign it to oblivion.

"They were Goddard tapes. Our job is to find out where they went," says Richard L. Nafzger, a senior engineer at Goddard who will lead the search.

The missing moon tapes are only the latest example of the difficulties faced by scientists and archivists in preserving huge volumes of precious scientific and other electronic data in formats that will be readable generations from now.

"What's the next technology going to be? And is this data going to migrate readily?" asks Roger Launius, chair of the division of space history at the National Air and Space Museum. "Archivists and historians have been talking about this for as long as I've been working in the field. It's an enormous challenge."

While one-fifth of mankind squinted at the same amazing-but-murky images as Armstrong delivered his "one small step ... " speech on July 20, 1969, a handful of NASA technicians saw much more.

According to Sarkassian's report, the video signals from the Maryland-built Westinghouse camera on the Eagle lander were transmitted to three NASA tracking stations. Two were in Australia and one at Goldstone, California.

There, personnel watched the black-and-white images on 10-inch monitors. They saw history made at 10 frames per second and 320 lines per frame.

But before the signals could be sent back to Houston and to the world's television networks, they had to be converted to a commercial TV format. That process, lowered the final resolution to just 262.5 frames per second - a loss of 18 percent of the original detail.

The images also had to be transmitted to Houston via microwave links, to geo-synchronous satellites 22,200 miles high and back, and onward by wire - losing even more image quality at every turn.

Stanley Lebar, 81, of Severna Park, was the program manager for the lunar camera program at Westinghouse. He was 44 then, in Houston, watching history on TV like everybody else.

His team had never tested their camera in a way that would show how conversion to the commercial TV format would affect the image.

"I sorta looked at my counterparts, and we all said pretty much the same thing: `What's happening?' " he says. "The imagery looked pretty bad to us."

"But at the same time, we had an image. For some reason or another people around the world accepted it for what it was, and everybody was happy."

It wasn't until two years ago, when Apollo veterans from the Australian tracking stations sent him 35-year-old Polaroid snapshots they took of the images on their monitors, that Lebar realized how much detail everyone else on the planet had missed.

"I about fell on the floor," he says. And the search was on for the tapes.

Fortunately, all the video, engineering and bio-medical data sent back from the moon were recorded at all three tracking stations. They were set down on 14-track, 1-inch magnetic tape, gulped onto the big reels at 120 feet per second - so fast they had to be changed every 15 minutes.

As they filled up, the reels were stacked and packed in cardboard boxes for shipment to Goddard. The search team has pictures of them.

Lebar says he never found paperwork showing they arrived at Goddard. But records at the National Data Center in Suitland, reveal that a large shipment of tapes - not specifically identified as Apollo tapes - was transferred there from Goddard in 1970.

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