So what happened to the original Apollo tapes, anyway?

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Sure, it’s awesome that NASA is restoring the footage they have of the Apollo 11 moon landing, but what really happened to the original slow-scan telemetry tapes that the highest resolution footage was recorded on? Rumors abound about them being lost forever, or found again. To find out what really happened, I had a chat with Dick Nafzger, the Goddard Space Flight Center engineer who was in charge of coordinating all TV operations for the moon landing back in 1969, at the age of 28. He still works at Goddard as an engineer, and has been one of the leading characters in the tape restoration this year. Here are excerpts from our interview in which he answered the question: Are the original Apollo 11 tapes lost forever?

The conclusion my team and I have reached is that they were degaussed and erased. They’re gone. The original tapes are gone.

Everything that was on the original tapes was transmitted live to the world, but back then, we had to degauss tapes all the time. The telemetry tape we used for Apollo 11 had 14 tracks, and one of them was used for video. It just dropped through the cracks that there was just one slow scan of that mission only on that telemetry tape. From Apollo 12 on, we switched to a broadcast standard on regular television recorder.

The Apollo 11 mission required special provisions because we were still exploring, and we weren’t sure what the transmission capabilities were at the time. We were not confident that we could broadcast at that distance. So we changed everything to be at a lower bandwidth and lower power so we could transmit a smaller signal and convert it. We just wanted to make sure we could get a signal to the moon.

We are also still looking for two tapes from Parkes Observatory in Australia that contained about 10-12 minutes of the original walk in the original slow scan format. They’re not the primary tapes, but were part of an experimental program. The tapes were made at Parkes, and we know they came back to the Applied Physics Lab to be viewed 40 years ago, right after the mission. They could be anywhere right now.

What we’re restoring now are the best available converted tapes from Sydney, Australia and TBS in New York, taken from a TV monitor in Houston during the mission. It’s about 40% done, and the final product will be revealed in September. All things considered, I’m very satisfied with where we are at with the restoration efforts, which will be done in September. We’re trying to restore history, not produce something from scratch that’s high definition. It’s an archive for future generations.

About Lisa Katayama

I'm a contributing editor here at Boing Boing. I also have a blog (TokyoMango), a book (Urawaza), and I freelance for Wired, Make, the NY Times Magazine, PRI's Studio360, etc. I'm @tokyomango on Twitter.
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6 Responses to So what happened to the original Apollo tapes, anyway?

  1. bunnyman2112 says:

    If all the original material were degaussed, what did Al Reinert use for “For All Mankind?” (I’ll definitely be boring my wife to death w/ it tonight!), or this 3 DVD set http://www.amazon.com/Apollo-11-Moon-Spacecraft-Films/dp/B00009XYYF which has over 10 hours of raw material from Apollo 11, including 16mm films (data aquisition camera) material, complete in-flight TV feeds, 15 freakin’ angles of the launch, etc, etc? Just checked it out (*again*) from the library today. When I asked the librarian why it wasn’t checked out already, she told me “Nobody really cares around here…” (!) For Pete’s sake, we have a NASA facility here in New Orleans @ Michoud! BTW, does anyone else remember getting paper craft LEMs from Gulf Gas Stations back then? Wish I still had an unpunched sheet!

  2. EdWatkins says:

    The conclusion my team and I have reached is that they were deaussed and erased. They’re gone. The original tapes are gone.

    I think the word is “degaussed” (i.e randomly re-aligning the magnetic domains on a tape to erase it)

  3. Lisa Katayama says:

    @#1: thanks for pointing that out. typo. fixed.

  4. robulus says:

    The conclusion my team and I have reached is that they were degaussed and erased. They’re gone. The original tapes are gone.

    So…. they’re gonna find them… right?

  5. akamarkman says:

    Check out the Association of Moving Image Archivists listserv for some more first-hand info: http://lsv.uky.edu/scripts/wa.exe?A1=ind0907&L=amia-l

  6. Anonymous says:

    “Dick Nafzger, the Goddard Space Flight Center engineer who was in charge of coordinating all TV operations for the moon landing back in 1969, at the age of 28. He still works at Goddard as an engineer, and has been one of the leading characters in the tape restoration this year.”

    No offense… but isn’t Dick the guy who was in charge of everything? So isn’t it really HIS FAULT that the original tapes of THE FIRST MOON LANDING IN HUMAN HISTORY were erased? But he still works there.

    Great work, Dick.

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