— TheWayISeeIt

The “Other” Lost Apollo Tapes

So a while back I was the NASA Ames research center near Sunnyvale, California. I was doing a story on Peter Diamandis, the founder of the X PRIZE for the Financial Times Magazine in London. As quite often happens with these kinds of things, one story leads to another and in this case there ended up being multiple stories. This is one of them.

As I was exploring the complex a little I noticed a closed McDonalds. As an image a closed McDonalds on a retired military base it’s very interesting on it’s own, but as I explored the building more I noticed machinery, reel to reels etc inside. I went back to the speak with a colleague about what was going on in this building. Turns out huge collection of previously unknown tapes which were the high res images of the lunar surface taken throughout the Apollo program were being restored in the McDonalds. I have researched exactly how and why this came to be and as my description would probably not do it justice, this is a pretty good explanation: (it’s pretty fascinating):

     This project started in the late 1980’s when the National Space Science Data Center (NSSDC) discovered a cache of the only known remaining set of Lunar Orbiter tapes in existence stored in a “salt mine.” The story there is that there are abandon salt mines that store government records, as the temperature and humidity are stable. There was some documentation attached indicating what they were and that JPL (NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory) should be notified as to what their ultimate fate should be. JPL took possession of them in about 1988 or so, as there was some interest in recovering the data so that the images could be digitized and made available to the general public as the pictures were then a bulky 2000, 28″ x 30″ prints. The problem at that point was that no one knew what technology created the tapes so the format and method was unknown. At the time a private consulting firm became aware of the project and decided to research the issue with the purpose of proposing a data recovery project. After amassing all the Lunar Orbiter literature available, it was determined that the Ampex FR900 tape recorder (the first real video tape recorder), was used to create the tapes. More importantly it was revealed that the data was in an analog format with the video in a format called “Vestigial Sideband Filtered”, slow scan TV. This knowledge set about the search for any source of FR900 tape drives. The search covered NASA sites, Vandenberg’s Pacific Missile Range at Kwajalein, the CIA and Egland AFB’s radar test site in Florida. Ultimately a total of four tape drives were obtained and as far as is known, are the only remaining drives of their type in the world.

The next problem was to determine if the drives would read a tape without destroying it. After numerous calibrations and experiments on spare tape, it was determined that it would be safe to try one of the Lunar Orbiter tapes. This was done and the specified video spectrum was obtained which proved the capabilities of the drive and that the data on the tape was still there. However, in order to obtain the video from the data, a circuit called the VSB decompressor (or “restorer”), needed to be designed and constructed. This was done and a recognizable sync pulse with video data was retrieved.

This was all accomplished in about 1992. Since then several proposals to NASA and various private sources failed to produce the money required to recover this data. So the tape drives were stored in a “chicken coop” (actually it was a garage / barn combination), for the next 15 or so years. Last year a call was made form the person in the video (who I will only identify as “D” until I can obtain his permission to release his name – though I don’t think this mission is actually a secret), called to ask about the tapes and the tape drives as he had some contacts that might be able to help. After visiting the “chicken coop” and ascertaining that the tapes were still at JPL’s storage facility, he then made arrangements to transport both to a site in Northern California from the Los Angeles area, which he did. He then assembled a crew of experts in various fields and located a site to carry out his low budget “proof of concept” which turned out to be a McDonalds, which was located on a military base, that was closed due to poor attendance after a government cutback. As it turned out, each of the little tables, normally used for enjoying your “Happy Meal”, were excellent workbenches for the various projects associated with bringing the drives back to working condition.”

The people involved were fascinating and the actual lunar imagery was nothing short of amazing. What was astonishing was the magnitude of the reels, the sheer numbers of them. I was under a tight deadline so was unable to spend as much time as I wanted here but I hope to go back and do a little more in-depth work with these guys and find out more about who, what, where, when and why.



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