Restoring the Moon: Lunar Orbiter Images Recovered
This photo provided by NASA shows Earth as seen by Lunar Orbiter 1 on Aug. 23, 1966, from a distance of 240,000 miles. This image is part of a larger image restored by NASA and the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project from 42 year old data tapes. The old moon never looked this good before. Mankind's first up-close lunar landscape photos have been rescued from four decades of dusty storage, restored in an abandoned McDonald's to such a high resolution that it rivals anything modern cameras are taking.
Credit: AP Photo/NASA

Forty three years ago, Charles J. Byrne, a Bellcomm, Inc. engineer, became concerned about NASA's plans to archive the data to be sent from a series of Moon mapping precursor missions to the Apollo lunar landings.

The Lunar Orbiter telemetry, which just two years and five unmanned missions later would account for imagery of 99 percent of the Moon, was originally planned by the space agency to be recorded on photographic film only. The five orbiters themselves would carry the equipment to develop their film and then scan it for transmission back to Earth. Once there, it would then be reprinted in strip form to then be manually re-assembled and re-photographed for study.

Anyone who has used a copy machine to make a copy of a copy knows that resolution is lost in the process. The same was true for Lunar Orbiter, though for NASA, which needed quicker access to the data than computers of that day were able to provide, the resulting images would be what they needed to evaluate landing locations for Apollo.

Still, thought Byrne, there would be value to having a tape back-up, so he outlined his idea for a Lunar Orbiter DVR- like system in a July 1965 memo.

"It is concluded that the ability to fully optimize the later site survey missions on the basis of early Lunar Orbiter data depends on an immediate decision to provide tape recorders," wrote Byrne.

NASA agreed and AMPEX FR-900 2-inch analog tape recorders were positioned at the Goldstone, California, Madrid, Spain and Castle Island (Woomera), Australia tracking stations to record all the images from the Lunar Orbiter spacecraft.

Byrne had referenced "later site survey missions" in his memo. What he didn't know -- what he couldn't know then -- was how much later those tapes would come back into use.

Earthrise and the sun sets on Lunar Orbiter

Though Lunar Orbiter was quickly overshadowed by the manned Apollo missions, they did accomplish a number of firsts. The spacecraft captured the first high resolution global map of the Moon, the first stereo imagery of the surface, and the first images of the Earth from the Moon.

The latter was particularly noteworthy as it amounted to the spacecraft's controllers turning Lunar Orbiter 1 away from the surface to take what was essentially an artistic shot. The black and white image was quick to capture the public's attention.

"And the other one of course, is earthrise, Earth rising above the surface of the Moon," continued Cowing in an interview with "At the time, all the photos were either television or photographs that had been sent back and they were murky."

"Very shortly thereafter, we landed on the Moon and there were the ghostly images of people walking on the Moon."

That astronauts landed safely and explored the surface meant that the Lunar Orbiters had done their job. With the Apollo program coming to a close and without a pressing need for the Lunar Orbiter data, NASA put the tapes into storage, first in Maryland and then in the mid-1980s they were moved to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

That's where they came under the care of Nancy Evans, co-founder of the NASA Planetary Data System (PDS).

Evans, working with Mark Nelson of Caltech, began a project to obtain surplus FR-900 tape drives, refurbish them, and digitize the Lunar Orbiter analog data on the tapes. They were successful in so much that they were able to obtain the tape drives and get them running, but without funding the project folded.

By the early 1990s, Evans had retired from JPL, taking with her the government-surplused drives in the hope of finding private funding to continue the project she began...

Continue reading about NASA's Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project and view the newly released images of the Moon at

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