Thehunt for magnetic tapes that recorded the original Apollo 11 moonwalks of Neil Armstrong and BuzzAldrin in 1969 has swung into high gear.
Afull-scale look for the original tapes is now underway at the NASA GoddardSpace Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland--the site where the material may behoused, or at another location within the NASA archiving system.
Despitethe challenges of the search, the space agency maintains it does not considerthe tapes to be lost.
Forthe past 18 months or so, NASA Goddard had been carrying out a casual look forthe tapes--replaced recently by a more formal look-see.
NASAengineers are hopeful that when--and if--the moonwalk tapes are unearthed, theycan use today's digital technology to provide a version of the moonwalk that ismuch better quality than what was broadcast throughout the world over 37 yearsago.
Bolsteringthat belief is the fact that Goddard engineers were able to extract data from anearly-identical type of tape recorded in 1969 of an Apollo simulation from theHoneysuckle Creek, Australia tracking station. That provides optimism that whenthe tapes are located, experienced tape handlers can preserve original video.
"We've kicked offan exhaustive search," said Dolly Perkins, Deputy Director-Technical at theNASA Goddard field center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "We are pulling every recordwe can find that has any link to the handling and storage of Apollo records."
Directorof NASA Goddard, Edward Weiler, asked Perkins to be the management lead of thegroup conducting the hunt for the Apollo tapes.
Inthe event the tapes are found, steps would be taken to assure that all theunique hardware required to process the Apollo 11 moonwalk tapes is stillavailable and can be used to make digital reproductions of the tapes. Those tapeswould then be kept with the NASA History Office to make sure the video isprotected and restored as needed.
Goddard'sramp up to a formal search for the tapes is good news, said Richard Nafzger,who is leading the engineering side of the search at Goddard.
"Weare quite busy organizing this search in a logical manner as, prior to this,searching has been an informal--as time allows--effort on my part," Nafzger told SPACE.com.
In responding to a SPACE.com query, Perkins said that part of thedetective work is a physical search of any facility thought to have been usedto store Apollo tapes, including the National Records Center, buildings atGoddard, or any storage facility that contractors may have used back then, orsince.
"Weare even pulling old phone books from the 1970's and 1980's so we can contactas many people as possible who worked in records management, or for the mannedspaceflight program, to see if they have any information that might be valuableto our search," Perkins said. "We've received hundreds of calls and e-mailsfrom people who think they may have important clues, and we're following up onall reasonable inputs," she added.
Perkins said that, given all the reporting on the search for the Apollo TVtapes, an important point has been lost.
"Allof the important technical, biomedical and scientific information from theApollo landings was transmitted in real time to Mission Control in Houston, recorded and preserved," Perkins noted. Those data are not lost, and are in factsecured in the nation's archives, she said.
"Theone thing we don't have, because it only exists on these tapes, is the originalslow-scan TV of the lunar EVAs [the moonwalks]. Only in recent years hastechnology advanced to the point where extracting the information digitallyfrom the original Apollo television became a viable proposition," Perkins said.
Asfor the search now ongoing, Perkins explained: "We're hopeful, but at the sametime realistic."
Tapesof the sort being sought were highly specialized, Perkins continued, typicallykept only until a mission was completed.
"Itwould have been common procedure to reuse such tapes for other missions or todestroy them at some point," Perkins advised.
"Ourhope is that someone had the foresight to realize that this might happen oneday, and put the tapes into permanent storage rather than following typicalprocedure," Perkins said. "Finding the records will give us the answer oneway or the other."
Re-process for posterity
StanLebar, during his career at Westinghouse, served as Program Manager of theApollo TV Lunar Camera which recorded the first steps onto the lunar surface byArmstrong and Aldrin back in July 1969. He and several other Apollo-eraretirees stirred up early interest in finding the tapes.
"Weare fighting a ticking clock," Lebar told SPACE.com, "where on the onehand the magnetic medium of the tapes have a definitive lifetime. If we waittoo long we may find tapes that no longer contain recoverable data. On theother hand, those of us that were intimately involved in the Apollo 11 activity--andunderstand every aspect of the process that took place--are passing on inlarge numbers," he warned.
Lebarsaid that the premise of the search for the elusive Apollo 11 tapes is that thevery best recording of this singular moment in the history ofhumankind should be made available to those that follow Apollo's small step,but giant leap.
"Thatvery best recording is out there somewhere and the least we can do is make theeffort to salvage it, re-process it and make it available for posterity beforeit is lost forever," Lebar said.
Fordetails about the Apollo 11 Slow-Scan Television Tapes, more information can befound at these sites:
- Tale of the TV Tapes: Apollo 11 Mission Archive Mystery Unspools
- VIDEO: Shuttle Commander Brent Jett
- VIDEO: Spacewalk in Infrared
- Complete Space Shuttle Mission Coverage
- NASA's STS-115: Shuttle Atlantis to Jump Start ISS Construction