The hunt for the Moon landing tapes

UNSPECIFIED - JULY 20: Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin standing on moon, with astronaut Neil Armstrong & lunar module reflected in helmet visor, during historic 1st walk on lunar surface. (Photo by NASA/NASA/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Over forty years ago, on July 20 1969, after a descent that can best be described as eventful, Neil Armstrong descended the steps of the Lunar Lander and became the first man ever to walk on the surface of the moon. The resulting images, taken from an automatically triggered camera mounted on the inside of the Eagle’s hatch, are some of the most iconic ever captured. They also aren’t the original. Much, much better ones were transmitted but have been lost over the years. Houston, as the saying goes, we have a problem…

It’s all a bit of a sorry saga, one that reads both as a cautionary tale regarding the storage of future archive material and a satire warning on the evils of bureaucracy and big government than anything else, but is all dealt with at admirable and unflinching length by NASA’s own report on the subject, ‘The Apollo 11 Telemetry Data Recordings: A Final Report’.

Ever since the beginning of the Mercury program in the latter part of the 1950s, the Agency had been keenly aware of the importance of television in selling its story to the public and keeping its  (then) Brobdingnagian budget intact. You only have to read Tom Wolfe’s excellent ‘The Right Stuff’ to understand how NASA’s own version of Mad Men tightly controlled the images and access that a largely supportive media industry was desperate to have.

As such, there were detailed plans for live televised pictures from the hoped for scheduled landing of Apollo 11. However, there wasn’t exactly a lot of spare bandwidth for them. Voice, telemetry, biomedical data, and television all had to share the same transmission link from an antenna afixed atop the Lunar Module, and television only got allocated 500kHz of the spectrum. Seeing that the commercial television of the time relied on having 4.5MHz at its disposal, this was therefore a bit of a problem.

The solution was to use a special camera mounted inside the door of the module developed by Baltimore’s Westinghouse Electric Corporation which used a non­-standard scan format of 10 frames per second and a 320 line resolution, compared with the (then) US television standard of 30 frames per second and 525 lines. This saved the required bandwidth and squeezed the signal down into the 500kHz required. But, because commercial television didn’t have a hope of being able to transmit that signal, RCA was also hired in turn to build a scan converter, which was then installed in the three tracking stations around the world that were scheduled to accept the live feed, Goldstone in California, Honeysuckle Creek and Parkes in Australia (the latter being where the events of the movie The Dish are played out).

The plan was to convert the signal on site using the RCA box before it was then sent to Mission Control in Houston via a mix of microwave links, communications satellites, and analogue phone landlines depending on exactly where in the world the tracking station was.

This is Stan Lebar, one of the engineers on the project who oversaw the development of the bespoke camera, speaking before his death in 2009. “I kept thinking it just doesn’t look as clear and crisp as I expected,” he said. “What’s going on here.”

Unfortunately, only a handful of engineers ever saw that original, unconverted signal on specially adapted monitors. All the footage the rest of the world saw, and will ever see, of that moon landing was recorded from the seriously downgraded broadcast signal at broadcasters’ HQs worldwide. The RCA box had performed much more poorly than expected and the consequent hops had only muddied an already ghostlike picture.

So, here’s why the rest of us never got to see them…

Each of the three stations used 15 one-inch tape reels to record the actual event, and the engineers dutifully boxed the 45 back-up tapes up and shipped them from their various locations to the Goddard Space Flight Centre in the US. From there, they were sent to the Washington National Records Centre, which is where they disappeared and, despite NASA’s best efforts to find them again, they remain stubbornly missing, presumed wiped to this day.

That’s not to say that there hasn’t been a Herculean effort to try and find them, which over the course of a decade involved hunting high and low across two continents, starting in 1997 when a British author phoned John Sarkissian, the de facto history of the Parkes dish in Australia. A retired engineer in Australia reckoned he’d taken a dupe of the actual landing tape, but after a mini saga all of its own which included locating the only machine in existence that could still play the data back, it turned out that he’d made a copy of the wrong tape and it contained just chatter between the astronauts and Houston.

Then there was a hunt through years of documentation and paperwork to try and see exactly where the missing originals had ended up. We are talking tens of thousands of tapes and even more paperwork as a dedicated team of sleuths tried to cross reference numbering systems from one government department with wholly different numbering systems from another.

A polaroid photo taken within one of the stations showing how good the quality of the original picture was found, and then some more

After a few more years of effort they eventually uncovered the name of the department at the Goddard Space Centre responsible for receiving the tapes (Data Services Section (Code 824.3) if you must know) and the fact that they would have been in a non-standard sized container for magnetic tapes of that period due to being on 14in reels.

They also though started to come across many references to a chronic shortage of one-inch magnetic tape inside NASA in the early 80s, as a couple of satellites (LANDSAT among them) were going through tape at way above the predicted rate. And, coupled with this, was the fact that in 1981 NASA procured 164,220 reels of magnetic tape from its own labyrinthine network of internal organisations to make up for that shortfall.

In other words, around a decade after the last human walked upon the surface of the moon, it looks like the 45 tapes of the original moon landing were degaussed, recertified, and reused to satisfy a NASA-wide shortage of one-inch tapes. Wiped in other words.

Of course, that particular breed of the lunatic fringe, the moon landing deniers, have had a bit of a field day with all this, but while the original footage has been lost there have been enough scraps lodged in the complex transmission chain used that day to assemble better quality footage of the event than was once thought possible. A copy of the landing footage was made in a Sydney video switching centre before the downlinked signal from Honeysuckle and Parkes was squirted over to the US (with all the additional degradation satellite transmissions suffered back in the last 1960s); a Super 8 film was made of the slow scan monitor display at Honeysuckle Creek; the CBS News Archives found some original tapes; and more kinescope footage (film recordings made from TV pictures) was also found at the Johnson Space Centre.

All these were rounded up and given to Lowry Digital for enhancement before the 40th Anniversary celebrations and on July 16 2009, 15 key enhanced scenes were released to the world’s media. According to the very few people who had seen both, they weren’t as good as the slow scan 320 line originals, but they were substantially better than what people had been viewing for four decades.

For subsequent moon landings, the events of Apollo 11 had revealed to NASA engineers that normal broadcast standards could be supported live from the Lunar surface, so the whole saga is destined never to be repeated. You can only hope though that NASA has somewhat tightened up its media storage policies…

Parts of this article, okay most of it, first appeared in RedShark News a while back.