One Giant Mystery for Mankind

There's a reason Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin looked so ghostly in those first live pictures from the Moon.

Their television camera -- a technical marvel at the time -- was too small to send video in standard broadcast format. Bandwidth was at a premium. So a simpler video signal had to be sent from the Moon, and converted at the tracking stations in Australia that received it. A lot of detail was lost in the process.

If only we could go back to the original format, say engineers, the first moonwalk would appear in crisp detail. But the only tapes of it have gone missing.

"If there's something better out there, I believe posterity deserves to have it," says Stan Lebar, manager of the team at Westinghouse Electric Corp. that built the Apollo lunar camera. He was in Houston on that famous night, and he knew what quality video the camera could send.

It's been estimated that 600 million people watched Neil Armstrong step out on the lunar surface -- the largest audience ever, up to then, for a television broadcast. Lebar and his colleagues would win an Emmy for their work.

Black-and-White, 15 Frames per Second

To make it possible to send television signals over the tenuous quarter-million-mile link from the Moon, Westinghouse built a camera that shot only 10 frames of video per second. Standard television in the United States is shot at 30 frames. A standard TV picture in the United States is also made up of 525 horizontal lines that, when shown together, make a clear image. The lunar camera shot 320 lines.

With the technology in 1969, it was not easy to convert from one format to another. Engineers played the picture from the Apollo 11 camera on a monitor that could handle it -- and pointed a standard TV camera at the monitor to get an image they could broadcast.

But the original telemetry tapes, including the video in its clearest form, were sent from NASA to the National Archives and back in the 1970s. And that's where the trail runs cold.

"It's weird that the National Archives didn't require it back," said a NASA staff member who is involved in the search for the tape, and didn't want to be quoted by name. "Anything they ask for isn't our property anymore."

The issue has taken on some urgency because NASA was soon going to discard the last now-antique machinery capable of replaying telemetry tapes from the Apollo Lunar Module. Engineers at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., put a stop to that.

But as for the location of the Apollo 11 tapes?

"We're just going to keep working," NASA spokesman Grey Hautaluoma said.

Naturally, conspiracy theorists have been having a grand time.

"The original fake tape of the fake moon landing has been fakely and conveniently lost. I guess now we'll just have to pretend that we pretended to land on the moon," snickered one blogger from New York.

Race Against Time

"We're dealing with protocols that were taking place 30 years ago at Goddard; we're not too familiar with that at this point in time, things have changed in those 30 years," said Lebar, who retired from Westinghouse in 1986 and now lives in Severna Park, Md.

Magnetic tapes slowly decay, especially if they are not stored carefully in a cool, dry archive. "If we wait too long, we may end up finding the tapes, but without any recordable information on them," Lebar said.

"And we're fighting a clock," he said. "I was 44 when they landed on the Moon. I'm 81 now. And most of the people that were involved with me, involved at that time, were very much my age, and we're not going to be around very much longer to do this."