Treasures from space unburied

Volunteers recover images from 1960s NASA missions from aging tapes

March 22, 2009|By John Johnson Jr. | John Johnson Jr.,Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES -Rising over the cratered surface of the moon, Earth looms - a shimmering arc covered in a swirling skin of clouds. The image, taken in 1966 by NASA's robotic probe Lunar Orbiter 1, presented a stunning juxtaposition of planet and moon that no Earthling had seen before.

It was called "the Picture of the Century."

"The most beautiful thing I'd ever seen," remembered Keith Cowing, who saw it as an 11-year-old and credited it with eventually luring him to work for NASA.

But in the mad rush of discovery, even the breathtaking can get mislaid.

NASA was so preoccupied with getting an astronaut to the moon ahead of the Soviet Union that little attention was paid to the mountains of scientific data that flowed back to Earth from its early space missions. The data, stored on miles of fragile tape, grew into mountains that were packed up and sent to a government warehouse with crates of other junk.

And so they eventually came to the attention of Nancy Evans. She had been trained as a biologist, but within the sprawling space agency she had found her niche as an archivist.

Evans was at her desk in the 1970s when a clerk walked into her office, asking what he should do with a truck-sized heap of data tapes that had been released from storage.

"What do you usually do with things like that?" she asked.

"We usually destroy them," he replied.

Unsung hero

If there is an unsung hero of the race to the moon, it is the Lunar Orbiter program of 1966 and 1967. The five unmanned spacecraft resembled stubby candleholders with 12-foot solar arrays at their bases.

On board were two large telescopes, along with specially built Kodak cameras using 70 mm film. An onboard darkroom developed the images and prepared them for transmission to Earth.

The mission of the program was to map the surface of the moon in preparation for the Apollo landings - and all five orbiters performed magnificently.

Incidental to its mission, Lunar Orbiter 1 took the first pictures of Earth as a full planet.

Altogether, nearly 2,000 frames were photographed by the five missions, each of which ended with a silent crash onto the lunar surface.

But there was a problem. Although the original high-resolution lunar images were saved on 2-inch tape, those pictures weren't seen by the public. The images that scrolled across television screens and appeared on the front pages of newspapers were snapshots of the originals using standard 35 mm film. The images were grainy and washed-out.

Then, two years after the last Lunar Orbiter mission, Apollo astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon. With him were a high-resolution Westinghouse TV camera and three Hasselblad still cameras.

Evans talked her bosses at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California into storing the Lunar Orbiter tapes in a warehouse at the lab. "I could not morally get rid of this stuff," said Evans, now 71.

The mountain of tapes was just part of Evans' new burden.

There was no point, she realized, in preserving the tapes unless she also had an FR-900 Ampex tape drive to read them. The $330,000 machines were electronic behemoths, each 7 feet tall and weighing nearly a ton. Only a few dozen of the machines had been made for the military, and she waited until the late 1980s to get three broken machines from an Air Force base.

They sat in her garage for two decades.

Evans applied regularly to NASA for funding to repair the drives. She was turned down every time. One NASA center estimated it would cost $6 million to restore the drives and digitize the tapes.

Going public

Finally, in 2005, retired and increasingly doubtful that the historic images would ever see the light of day, Evans gave up on NASA and went public.

She submitted a paper to a lunar conference stating her plight. Her plea ended up on a blog frequented by space buffs, where it caught the attention of space enthusiast Dennis Wingo. He brought in a friend, Keith Cowing, who worked for NASA for several years and now runs the NASA Watch Web site.

"I have been working in lunar exploration for 20 years," Wingo said. "I knew the value of the tape drives and the tapes."

One evening in April 2007, Cowing and Wingo pulled up to Evans' home with two rented trucks and loaded up the FR-900s, taking them to the Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., probably the only NASA institution that would even consider admitting the men and their pile of junk.

With the help of an Army veteran, Ken Zin, and a few student volunteers, Wingo and Cowing worked long hours, cannibalizing parts from the tape drives to get one working machine.

They had managed to get $100,000 from NASA for their project.

After three months of work, and 42 years after the images were taken, Cowing gazed again at the image of Earth rising above the lunar landscape.

"When that picture came up, I had tears in my eyes," Cowing said.

The project has so far cost $250,000, far less than the $6 million estimate by NASA.

The team eventually hopes to retrieve all 2,000 images from the five missions.

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