An exhaustive, three-year search for some tapes that contained the original footage of the Apollo 11 moonwalk has concluded that they were probably destroyed during a period when NASA was erasing old magnetic tapes and reusing them to record satellite data…
NASA has, however, offered up a consolation prize for the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission — the agency has taken the best available broadcast television footage and contracted with a digital restoration firm to enhance it, so that the public can see the first moonwalk in more detail than ever before.
But the lost tapes mean that the world will probably never again see the original images beamed back to Earth by the lunar camera that is now resting on the moon’s dusty Sea of Tranquility, right where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left it.
That special lunar camera recorded in an odd format that was incompatible with the format used for broadcast TV. So when the footage was received on Earth back in July of 1969, it had to be converted for the live television broadcast.
The conversion degraded the images, and hundreds of millions of TV viewers saw dark, murky pictures…
[Stan Lebar, who led the team that designed and built the lunar camera] knew that engineers on the ground did preserve the lunar camera’s odd-format footage by recording it onto tapes. So a few years ago, Lebar and some colleagues decided to go back and look at those tapes, to see if today’s digital technology could use them to produce a higher-quality video…
But, as NPR first reported back in 2006, the tapes were missing — no one had any idea where they were stored. That report helped trigger a massive search by NASA…
Lebar and others spent hours and hours in a vast government storage facility known as the Washington National Records Center, a place that Lebar compares to the giant warehouse at the end of the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark… But then they discovered something disturbing.
Over the years, NASA had removed massive numbers of magnetic tapes from the shelves. In the early 1980s alone, tens of thousands of boxes were withdrawn.
It turns out that new satellites had gone up and were producing a lot of data that needed to be recorded. “These satellites were suddenly using tapes seven days a week, 24 hours a day,” says Lebar.
And the agency was experiencing a critical shortage of magnetic tapes. So NASA started erasing old ones and reusing them.
That’s probably what happened to the original footage from the moon that the astronauts captured with their lunar camera, says Lebar. It was stored on telemetry tapes, and old tapes with telemetry data were being recycled.
“So I don’t believe that the tapes exist today at all,” says Lebar. “It was a hard thing to accept. But there was just an overwhelming amount of evidence that led us to believe that they just don’t exist anymore. And you have to accept reality.”
If you follow the link to the NPR website you can read or listen to the entire story and view video clips of the archival and restored images.
Here’s the link to more of the restored videos on the NASA website.