NASA Erased First Moonwalk Tapes, But Restores Copies

After athree-year search for a set of data tapes that promised to offer an improvedview of the first moonwalk by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin 40 years ago thismonth, NASA revealed on Thursday that the tapes were more than likely erasedyears ago and reused. But the agency then unveiled the next best thing:restored footage based on their best broadcast quality tapes.

The "losttapes", as they came to be referred to by the press, first cameto the public's attention in 2006 when a independent group led by membersof the original lunar TV camera and tracking station teams realized that usingmodern technology the original mission telemetry tapes could be used to producethe highest quality television record of the first humans on the Moon.

Their problem was finding thosetapes. The "slow-scan" tapes had been shipped from where theywere originally recorded in Australia and California to Maryland, where overthe course of four decades they were believed to be moved among tens ofthousands of tapes from Goddard Space Flight Center to the National Archives inSuitland to then be recalled by Goddard in Greenbelt.

"There were 45 [Apollo 11] tapes approximately that were shipped toGoddard and the WNRC [Washington National Records Center] in amongst about fourto five hundred thousand during the whole Apollo program. That is what we werelooking for," explained Dick Nafzger, who led the team at Goddard, duringa press conference.

Lost forgood

A search of Goddard's archives, as well as other taperepositories was unsuccessful, strongly suggesting that the tapes weredegaussed so that they could be reused to record telemetry from later missions,which would not be unusual for the day.

"What we found in the records and what will be detailed in a report to beissued was that in 1970 to 1974 we pulled out 40,000 boxes of tapes... fivetapes to a box, that is 200,000 of these tapes, that was to support on-goingApollo missions, to support Apollo-Soyuz, to support Skylab. They were neededin the network," said Nafzger.

"If the program said 'We no longer need this data' the procedures thatwere set by [the National Archives and Records Administration] and NASA werethat you could reuse these tapes. So they were preserved for a period of timeuntil the program, which was the owner of this data, was clearly able to tellyou that it was no longer needed.

"That was the plan and that was what was done. In 1981 and 1982, we pulledout another 30,000. We then had Landsat in dire need of tapes in the networkand we had the start of the shuttle program. Those tapes were pulled out andour records show that they were never returned.

"There is an inescapable conclusion that this team has reached and that isthat these 45 tapes were included in the several hundred thousand that werepulled, recertified, degaussed and put back into the network," reportedNafzger. "The slow-scan recordings are no longer."

RestoringApollo 11?s moonwalk

Without the slow-scan tapes to work with, NASA turned to the next best sourcethey had to produce what will be the best version of the Apollo 11 lunartelevision.

"The team of people who I work with, including myself obviously, wasdesperate to do something for history if we could," admitted Nafzger."Our goal [was] to try to restore and provide historically the bestquality [video] we can for future generations, for anyone who wants to see thisoutstanding achievement of mankind."

Nafzger's team, which included Apollo-era engineers like himself who helpedproduce the 1969 live broadcast of the moonwalk, acquired the best of thebroadcast-format video from a variety of sources for the restoration effort.

These included a copy of a tape recorded in Sydney, Australia at the videoswitching center where downlinked television from Parkes and Honeysuckle Creektracking stations was received for transmission to the United States; originalbroadcast tapes from the CBS News Archive recorded via direct microwave andlandline feeds from Johnson Space Center in Houston; and kinescopes --recordings of the television broadcast made by filming the picture from a videomonitor -- found in film vaults at Johnson that had not been viewed for 36years.

NASA then contracted Lowry Digital of Burbank, Calif., which specializes inrestoring aging Hollywood films, to take the highest quality video from theserecordings and significantly enhance it using the company's proprietarysoftware technology and other restoration techniques.

"There's a bit of closure for us at Lowry Digital in that our founder JohnLowry... he invented a technology called 'video noise reduction', which wasactually applied on the Apollo 16 and 17 missions," reflected Mike Inchalik,president of Lowry Digital. "The live broadcasts from those missions wasrun through his electronic processing before being broadcast around the worldto give cleaner, better looking pictures."

"Now we have the privilege of taking this new advanced technology thatputs quality at a premium and tries to extract everything possible from motionsequences and bring it back to NASA one more time," said Inchalik.

Under the initial effort timed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of theApollo 11 mission, Lowry worked on 15 scenes representing the most significantmoments of the three and a half hours that Armstrong and Aldrin spent on thelunar surface. NASA released the video Thursday at a news conference at theNewseum in Washington, DC.

The fully restored moonwalk is targeted for completion in September.

That the broadcast tapes needed to be restored to even approach the quality ofthe now no longer available slow scan tapes was a result of how theywere recorded.

The black and white images of the two moonwalkers bounding around the moon wereprovided by a single small video camera aboard the lunar module. The camera useda non-standard format that commercial television could not broadcast.

NASA used a converter to optically and electronically adapt these images to aU.S. broadcast TV signal. The tracking stations converted the signals andtransmitted them using microwave links, Intelsat communications satellites, andAT&T analog landlines to Mission Control. By the time the images appearedon television, they were substantially degraded.

Degraded or not, the fact that there was television from the Moon greatlyimpressed on of the "stars" of the broadcast, Neil Armstrong.

"I remember all the preflight testing that we were doing on that littleblack and white image TV camera. In all that testing, I never saw a picturesuccessfully transmitted but the chaps assured us that it would and in factwork," wrote Armstrong in an excerpt from a letter that was read duringthe press conference announcing the restored footage. "I was probably themost surprised person in the human race when mission control announced theywere getting a picture. So, I was never concerned that the picture quality wasless than optimum. I was just amazed that there was any picture at all."

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