Tale of the TV Tapes: Apollo 11 Mission Archive Mystery Unspools

Tale of the TV Tapes: Apollo 11 Mission Archive Mystery Unspools
Slow-scan Polaroid taken at Goldstone tracking station reveals far more detail than publicly broadcast TV during Apollo 11 moonwalk. Search is underway to locate old Apollo tapes and freshen them up with new digital technologies.
(Image: © Image Courtesy: Bill Wood)

Backin July 1969, the first moonwalks by Apollo 11's Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrinare frozen forever moments in the history books. But it turns out that millionsof riveted spectators back on Earth were on the receiving end of substantiallydegraded television showing the epic event.

Thehighest-quality television signal from Apollo 11's touchdown zone in the moon's Sea of Tranquility--from an antennamounted atop the Eagle lunar lander--was recorded on telemetry tapes at threetracking stations on Earth: Goldstone in California and Honeysuckle Creek and Parkes in Australia.

Scadsof the tapes were produced--and now a search is on to locate them. And ifrecovered and given a 21st century digital makeover, they couldyield a far sharper view of that momentous day, compared to what was broadcast aroundthe globe.

ButApollo 11 is a memory rewind--now over 37 years old. Nobody is quite sure justhow much longer the original slow-scan tapes will last ... that is, if theyhaven't already been erased.

Handled and archived

"Iwould simply like to clarify that the tapes are not lost as such, which impliesthey were badly handled, misplaced and are now gone forever. That is not the case,"explained John Sarkissian, operations scientist at the Commonwealth Scientificand Industrial Research Organization's (CSIRO) Parkes Radio Observatory in Parkes, Australia.

Sarkissiansaid the tapes were appropriately handled and archived in the mid 1970's afterthe hectic activity of the Apollo lunar landing era was over. "We are confidentthat they are stored at [NASA's] Goddard Space Flight Center [in Greenbelt, Maryland] ... we just don'tknow where precisely," he told SPACE.com. It is important to note, Sarkissian added, that there is no inference ofwrong-doing, incompetence or negligence on the part of NASA or its employees.

"Thearchiving of the tapes was simply a lower priority during the Apollo era. Itshould be remembered, that at the time, NASA was totally focused on meeting itsgoal of putting a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. Nosooner had they done that, than they had to repeat it again a few months later,and then do it again, repeating it for a total of seven lunar landing missions ... including Apollo 13," Sarkissianpointed out.

Makingit tough to track down the whereabouts of the data, many of those involved inthe archiving of the tapes have since moved on, retired or passed away, "takingtheir corporate memory of where the tapes are with them," Sarkissian said.

Itis important not to exaggerate the quality of the images being sought,Sarkissian added. "The SSTV was not like modern high definition TV and nor wasit even equal in quality to the normal broadcast TV we are accustomed toviewing," he said.

Still,the SSTV was better than the scan-converted images that were broadcast at thetime--which is the only version currently available, Sarkissian concluded.

Paper trail

Asmall independent group of Australian and U.S. Apollo tracking station veteranshave embarked on a new search for the Apollo 11 tapes.

Thegroup is hot on a cold paper trail regarding the location of the data. They'realso on the lookout for anyone involved in the management, disposition and storage ofthe Apollo tapes at NASA Goddard--or any other NASA or NASA-utilized facilitywhere they may have been shipped.

Technicalspokesman for the group is Bill Wood, a retired Apollo tracking station engineer in Barstow, California. He supported allof the Apollo missions at Goldstone - part of NASA's worldwide network of deepspace antennas run by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena,California.

Woodhasn't been happy of late with some reports saying that they are looking for"missing Apollo videotapes"--as well as tabloid claims that NASA had somehowbungled a task.

"That'sthe furthest thing from the truth," Wood told SPACE.com. "There are nolost Apollo video tapes," he emphasized.

Never-before-seen view

Forthe last three or four years, the private group has been searching for specialraw data recordings that contain unconverted slow-scan television (SSTV),recorded as a backup in case of an equipment glitch or a video circuit outageduring the historic moon strolls of Armstrong and Aldrin. 

Sincethere were no problems converting the slow-scan signals to National TelevisionSystem Committee video standards, there was no need to use the backuptelemetry recordings. Hundreds of boxes of Apollo-era magnetic tapes weresubsequently shipped to NASA Goddard, later to be likely turned over to the National Record Center in Suitland, Maryland, Wood said.

Most of the Apollo tapes were laterreturned to NASA Goddard, including the raw Apollo 11 SSTV tapes. However, whathappened to the tapes is not known. Because the SSTV was of superior quality tothe scan-converted pictures broadcast out to the world at large, the hope is torecover them and give the public a higher-quality, never-before-seen view ofthe first human expedition sent to the Moon. Along with video, vintage Apollo11 telemetry is also being sought.

Wood said he doubts the tapes have beentrashed. On the other hand, there's a 50/50 chance they were recycled.

"Since telemetry recording tapes back then cost$90 to $100 a reel ... well, that was back when $100 dollars was $100dollars," Wood said. A magnetic rehab center at Goddard, he said, may havewiped the tapes clean--a budget-saving measure for reuse of the recording tapes.

"What we're hoping, though, is thatsomebody, maybe, might have saved some of them," Wood added. "We want tointerest people to see something better than it happened at the time."

Range of formats

Meanwhile,at the Goddard Space Flight Center, the search is on.

"Hopefully,if we can find one set of tapes we can find them all," said Dave Williams ofthe National Space Science Data Center (NSSDC) at the NASA field center. "Westill have some possibilities we're looking into, so I'd say the tapes might befound and depending on how they have been stored may well be readable," he toldSPACE.com.

Williamsand several colleagues are engaged in the Lunar Data Project--a different effortto take relevant, scientifically important Apollo data archived at NSSDC--analogdata, microfilm, microfiche, photographic film, or hard copy documents anddigitize that range of formats.

If the data were more readily available andusable in today's data rich and readable world, restoring Apollo data couldprovide a wealth of information for scientific studies and planning for futurelunar exploration.

Migration of data

"There'sa lot of old data that we don't seem to have," suggested Philip Stooke,Associate Professor at the University of Western Ontario's Department ofGeography in London, Ontario, Canada. "I think more Apollo-era science data ismissing too." 

Hardat work on an atlas of lunar exploration, Stooke told SPACE.com that hewas personally looking for images of the Moon taken by Explorer 49, a NASAradio astronomy mission that settled into lunar orbit in 1973. The probecarried a panoramic camera to monitor the deployment of its booms. 

"Itseems that the science data were preserved...but not those images," Stooke said.

Theentire lunar data hide and seek saga that's alive and well here in the U.S. is being repeatedin Russia too. "I work with people in Moscow who are trying to recover old lunar data," Stooke added.

Theworry that old Apollo tapes can deteriorate is a valid concern, Stooke said."Migration of data to new media is essential in digital archiving...and it's anongoing problem." 

Whatabout the CD-ROMs of today? Are they going to be readable in 50 years? 

"Don'tcount on it," Stooke responded.

For details regarding the search for theApollo 11 Slow-Scan Television Tapes, cast your eyes on these sites:



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