The Scientific Activist

NASA Loses Moon Landing Tapes

Yes, that’s right. The moon landing may have been one of the most significant events of the Twentieth Century, but our original records of it seem to have been misplaced, as The Sydney Morning Herald reported on the 5th of August:

The heart-stopping moments when Neil Armstrong took his first tentative steps onto another world are defining images of the 20th century: grainy, fuzzy, unforgettable.

But just 37 years after Apollo 11, it is feared the magnetic tapes that recorded the first moon walk – beamed to the world via three tracking stations, including Parkes’s famous “Dish” – have gone missing at NASA’s Goddard Space Centre in Maryland.

A desperate search has begun amid concerns the tapes will disintegrate to dust before they can be found.

It is not widely known that the Apollo 11 television broadcast from the moon was a high-quality transmission, far sharper than the blurry version relayed instantly to the world on that July day in 1969.

Among those battling to unscramble the mystery is John Sarkissian, a CSIRO scientist stationed at Parkes for a decade. “We are working on the assumption they still exist,” Mr Sarkissian told the Herald.

“Your guess is a good as mine as to where they are.”

Now, when I lost a tape of one of my childhood talent shows, I could forgive myself (maybe I was kind of glad, even). However, if I were NASA, I would be losing a bit of sleep over this.

An article from today’s London Daily Telegraph explains why the images broadcast into homes across the world were of such poor quality:

Despite its iconic status, the television footage was the equivalent of a photocopy of a photocopy.

It came from a camera that had been pointed at a black-and-white monitor. The image on the monitor, in turn, had already been stripped of much of its detail.

To make sure the transmission would make it back to Earth, the images sent from Apollo 11 were recorded at 10 frames per second, and had to be converted to 60fps in order to be broadcast.

In the process, much of the detail was lost.

Stan Lebar, now 81, was in charge of the images from Apollo 11. What he saw was so blurred that he initially thought something had gone wrong.

“My immediate reaction when I looked over at my counterparts at Nasa was ‘What’s happening?’,” he recalled. “We thought there had been a problem getting the converter to work properly.

“What was broadcast to the world was nowhere near as good as what was received,” said John Sarkissian, of the CSIRO Parkes Observatory in New South Wales, one of the three tracking stations that taped the original footage before sending it on to Houston in converted form.

Those tapes, although nowhere near the standard of normal television transmissions, would still be of far better quality than the video we have today, especially if processed using modern digital techniques.

NASA believes the tapes are currently located at the Goddard Space Flight Center, where they may have been returned to in 1984, after being transferred to the National Archives in 1970. That’s about all that’s known, though, at this point.

Time to get cracking, NASA!


  1. #1 Michael Hopkins
    August 14, 2006

    They are in the hands of top people.

    Top people!

    [Show huge government warehouse]

    [John Williams soundtrack starts playing]

    Seriously, it is suprising that NASA did not immediately try to convert the tapes into a standard that could be broadcast. Releasing them a few months afterwards could have been a nice PR stunt. I guess too few PR types then, too many now. In any event if one puts the tapes into storage and leave them there for nearly four decades, what would one expect would happen?

  2. #2 Kevin W. Parker
    August 14, 2006

    NASA thoroughly missed the boat on Apollo 11 TV – there was even talk at one point of not televising the Moon walks at all. But some folks in Houston rightly pitched a fit, and they managed to come up with a way of not only having a camera onboard but positioning it to see the first step with a minimum of human intervention.

  3. #3 tim
    August 14, 2006

    the moonshot-was-a-fake loonies are going to have a field day over this one!

New comments have been disabled.