Missing: Cache of Tape. Contents: First Landing on Moon

Aug 14, 2006 3:56pm

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 to send a signal was at a premium.  The video had to be converted at the tracking stations in Australia that were downlinking the signal from Apollo 11, and 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. (Still frame from the Apollo 11 moonwalk.  Engineers say the picture was badly degraded by conversion to broadcast format. NASA picture) "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, among other things, win an Emmy for their work.  To make it possible to send television signals over the tenuous quarter-million link from the Moon, Westinghouse built a camera that shot ten frames of video per second.  Standard television in the U.S. is shot at 30 frames.  The standard TV picture in the U.S. is also made up of 525 horizontal lines that, when shown together, make a clear image.  The lunar-surface camera shot 320 lines. 1969 technology was not easily able to convert from one format to another.  Engineers played the picture from Apollo 11 on a monitor that could play the camera’s signal — 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.” (A film picture from Apollo 11–the only one that includes Neil Armstrong full-frame on the moon.  Armstrong had the one still camera during most of the moonwalk, so most of the pictures are of Buzz Aldrin.) 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,” said Grey Hautaluoma, a NASA spokesman. 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.  "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. “And we’re fighting a clock,” he said.  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." 

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