The curious case of lost NASA tapes

July 27, 2007 at 3:00 am 7 comments

Thailand photoThis is a great story from Wired – it has all kinds of stuff that interests me. It’s a tale about one of the most important historical events of the 20th Century. It’s also a sorry story of poor record keeping; sloppy information management; an engineeer who seems to be the only person possessing certain knowledge; and inconsistent decisions about what is or is not valuable historical knowledge. And an extra bonus is that it involves two of my favourite topics: space/NASA and history.

Our story begins in 1969: July 20 to be precise, when Neil Armstrong uttered those famous words “One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind” after stepping foot on the dust of the Moon. Interestingly, in Andrew Chaikin’s book, A Man on the Moon, it’s suggested that Armstrong most likely meant to say “That’s one small step for a man.….”. And recent analysis of the lunar landing tapes has shown that transmission static caused the missing ‘a’ to be left out during recording.

But way back in 1969, a young NASA electrical engineer, Stan Lebar, was getting a little nervous about the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon. Lebar’s task was to develop the camera that would preserve for posterity the images of Armstrong and Aldrin’s lunar landing. The camera had to withstand the force of Eagle’s landing, operate in near-weightlessness and start sending back to Earth a live feed so that millions of people around the world could participate in this historic event and the Soviets would wish they had beaten the Americans to the Moon. If the camera didn’t work, so the story goes, Lebar (stationed at Mission Control, Houston) would apologise on camera to the world for any stuff-up.

We have to remember that back in the 60s, TV and computers were ‘primitive’ compared to the sophisticated technology of today. The broadcast spectrum used for video was clogged up with data coming back to Earth from Apollo 11 and so there was no space left for the black and white video format of the time. So, as often happens under pressure, an innovative solution had to be devised, in this case, a unique video format: 320 scan lines at 10 fps, transmitted at a meager 500 kHz (compared to 525 scan lines of data at 30 frames per second, transmitted at 4.5 MHz for the black and white format). But this was pretty slow-scan footage and tracking stations on Earth would need to convert the footage to TV images, then beam it to Mission Control.

So far so good. Australia played a big part during the Apollo 11 mission. NASA maintained two tracking stations: the Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station near Canberra and the Parkes Radio Observatory in Parkes. I used to live in Dubbo, near Parkes and once visited the Radio Observatory – it’s true what the article says – the facility was stuck out in nowhere land surrounded by sheep. During the simulation tests for the camera it worked perfectly and the tracking stations were ready.

Another character in our story now enters: Dick Nafzger, who was the 28-year-old coordinator of the tracking stations’ TV operations stationed at Mission Control. He was the guy responsible for converting the slow-scan footage into US Standard broadcast footage. Both Lebar and Nafzger felt the weight of responsibility but were confident the camera and conversion process would work.

As Armstrong pushed himself off Eagle’s ladder and uttered his historic words, the two Australian tracking stations were the first to receive the slow-scan footage, despite high winds buffeting the area and possibly causing signal disruption. Lebar and Nafzger eagerly awaited the first images of this historic and emotional moment and the world held its collective breath.

The camera worked; the live feed streamed down to Earth. But Lebar’s heart skipped a beat or two. The quality of the footage he had seen during camera simulations was not what he saw on the monitor. The live images were grainy and grayish in tone. Lebar thought Armstrong looked like “a fuzzy gray blob wading through an inkwell“. But NASA was happy; the world was happy and so the issue of image quality was soon put aside.

Here’s where the story gets really interesting. Lebar never saw the raw transmission. Only a few tracking engineers ever saw it and thankfully they recorded the live feed onto now obsolete reels of magnetic tape and sent the tapes to NASA for safekeeping. Now, you would think that NASA would preserve these historic tapes with care and index the content appropriately. Mmmm…not exactly: it seems NASA has lost the tapes.

Here’s what seems to have happened:

  • a bunch of NASA enthusiasts and tracking engineers from the Apollo 11 mission get together every year for a picnic at the Honeysuckle station, which was closed in 1981. They reminisce and share their stories and in 2002 someone whipped out an old 14-inch magnetic tape of the moonwalk during a BBQ. They gasped and marvelled at the quaint antiquity of the magnetic tape. Then in 2003, still-photos of the original slow-scan footage were passed around at the annual reunion.
  • the photos highlighted the impressive quality of the images – far superior to the grainy images shown to the world back in 1969.
  • everyone asked: were the raw images really crisper than those the world saw in 1969 and if so, wouldn’t these quality images be on the magnetic tapes the tracking engineers produced and sent to NASA? And where are these tapes now?
  • the 14-inch tape was sent to NASA but the format was so archaic no-one had the knowledge or the equipment to play the tapes.
  • but here Dick Nafzger re-enters the story. He was still employed at NASA and was the only person left with the know-how of video formats of the 1960s.
  • Nafzger knew a colleague who worked at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and the Center had an old analog recorder – “a 7-foot-high gray machine with big black knobs and huge reel-to-reel spools“. The sort of stuff you see in old sci-fi films of the 50s and 60s. It was the only equipment that could read data from the archaic tapes.
  • alas…the tape only had audio and data from an earlier mission, not Apollo 11.
  • but…the old analog recorder had shown that old tapes could still be read – so where were the magnetic tapes of the moonwalk in NASA’s cavernous archives?

At this point in our story, the information and knowledge management specialists amongst us might like to take a valium or a strong cup of coffee because from here on, the story gets pretty woeful.

A hunting party was put together: Lebar, Nafzger and Colin Mackellar (an Australian space-nut). Lebar retired in 1987 and had always wondered what had happened to the images that during simulations had been so sharp but during the live-feeds had been so gray and fuzzy. Had the world seen a “lame version of the moonwalk?”. So the hunt was on. And here’s what happened:

  • Lebar and Nafzger went to NASA to search for the tapes.
  • they were sent to the Washington National Records Center, which holds 4 million musty boxes of old records, including NASA’s. They encountered stacked boxes of various records occupying the space of 14 football fields. (Sounds like one episode of the X-Files I remember where some alien embryo was filed away with thousands of others in some secret squirrel Government warehouse). Boxes of NASA stuff had been sent there just after the Apollo 11 mission.
  • Lebar and Nafzger found a data storage system in shambles – no-one knew what was where; there was no barcoding or computerised indexing system. If a box had been checked out, all that remained on the shelf was a yellowed piece of paper functioning as a placeholder. Many boxes have been checked out for decades.
  • they found that 140,000 tapes had been checked out of the Records Center and sent back to Goddard between 1979 and 1985 and disappeared – no-one seemed to know of the whereabouts of the tapes. Former Goddard employees were asked if they recalled the boxes but to no avail.
  • there is no central database to track NASA files and each NASA facility decides what information is valuable or not. So sometimes records are destroyed or “decommissioned” or sit in someone’s office gathering dust layers.
  • the hunting party was told that an employee recalled 14-inch tapes being sent to storage in the Goddard Corporate Park. But the facility had been closed for years and….all the records were destroyed.
  • the tapes were possibly “degaussed”or erased so they could be reused.
  • the hunting party is still hunting.

And so historic records from NASA’s golden era have possibly been lost forever amidst an organisation that failed to maintain official and appropriate record keeping and didn’t consider how to preserve the data from tapes in now obsolete formats.

The good news is that the old analog recorder will be saved while the hunters continue their search for the lost tapes. NASA has now officially admitted that the tapes have gone AWOL. And Australia may yet play a part in recovering the tapes. Recently, tapes containing data from lunar-surface experiments were uncovered in a basement at Curtin University of Technology in Perth, Western Australia. Perhaps, in some basement somewhere in the world are the missing NASA tapes that contain precious footage of one of humanity’s great moments.

As the Wired article says: One Giant Screwup for Mankind.

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Entry filed under: History, Information management, Knowledge Management, NASA.

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Antisthenes  |  July 27, 2007 at 4:54 pm

    Can you take pictures of where you have never been?

    Reply
  • 2. Top Posts « WordPress.com  |  July 28, 2007 at 12:00 am

    […] The curious case of lost NASA tapes [image]This is a great story from Wired – it has all kinds of stuff that interests me. It’s a tale about one of […] […]

    Reply
  • 3. thinkingshift  |  July 28, 2007 at 12:13 am

    Antisthenes, you subscribe to the theory that man never made it to the Moon but to a TV studio instead? What’s the latest evidence on this do you know?
    Kim

    Reply
  • 4. Ulrich  |  August 14, 2007 at 2:28 pm

    Good story – any reliable sources available for the other NASA loss story, that one, about the no longer readable tapes of the Mars missions?

    Reply
  • 5. Jon  |  March 4, 2009 at 2:11 am

    What about the still photo’s there are tons and tons of them. Such a ridiculous amount of still photos were every one of them faked too?

    Reply
  • 6. shano  |  April 19, 2009 at 1:39 am

    are there still people who believe that man never walked on the moon? dear oh dear… do you realise how many thousands of people would have to be in on “the scam” to be able to pull it off…? thousands of people who were not only involved in the event but the thousands who watched the rocket leave earth…
    You wanna talk hoax, read the bible.

    Reply
  • 7. thinkingshift  |  April 19, 2009 at 1:48 am

    I think if you read this post carefully enough and other posts I have done on the space race, nowhere have I ever said that humans walking on the moon is a hoax. In fact, I don’t subscribe to that theory.

    Reply

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