Archivist Saves, Restores Original NASA Moon Pictures

Archivist Saves, Restores Original NASA Moon Pictures

The Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project is restoring and releasing the first up-close pictures of the moon, taken by five unmanned Lunar Orbiter missions in the late 1960s, among them a famous 1966 black-and-white shot of the Earthrise from the surface of the moon.

The originals of those images wouldn’t exist today at all, however, if not for the efforts of Nancy Evans, a retired NASA archivist and co-founder of NASA’s Planetary Data System. Evans persuaded NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to store some 2,000 magnetic tapes that held the image data, saving them from being destroyed. She also located four of the specialized machines—FR-900 Ampex tape drives, of which only a few dozen had ever existed—to read the tapes and then stored them in her own garage. None of them worked, but Evans hoped for NASA funding to have them repaired.

Despite repeated attempts, NASA funding never came. But in 2005, after Evans had retired, her quest came to the attention of private space activists who realized what she had. Author Dennis Wingo and former NASA employee and NASA Watch operator Keith Cowing managed to get space for the project in an abandoned McDonald’s at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, as well as some funding to carry it out. With engineer Ken Zin repairing the tape drives, the team focused on the Earthrise photo, which predated the color version taken on the Apollo 8 mission by two years. This one had been seen by the public as well, but in a degraded form; the image released was actually a photo of the photo, taken with standard 35-millimeter film.

The restored image, released last year, had twice the resolution of what was seen 40 years ago, and four times the dynamic range.

While the technological challenge of extracting images has been solved, a data-sorting challenge remains. “We’re still in the first phase of the project where we need to search through tapes in a painstaking fashion just to find the images we are interested in downloading,” wrote Cowing on the Moonviews blog August 19.

The tapes were recorded at three different ground stations and were not always labeled in a systematic manner. “It’s like a library undergoing the switch from Dewey Decimal System to Library of Congress, and then you have an earthquake,” Cowing told American Libraries. “That’s essentially what happened 40 years ago.”

The tapes were dated, but that information corresponds to when the tapes were recorded. Due to the time needed for the orbiter to develop the pictures and transmit them, as well as the downtime when the orbiter was on the opposite side of the moon, those don’t always match up to when the pictures were taken.

A student working on the project made the first big step toward understanding the labeling, Cowing said. Each of the tapes bears a letter, “W,” “M,” or “G,” and the student recognized that they corresponded to the three ground stations in Woomera, Australia; Madrid, Spain; and Goldstein, California.

The second big breakthrough was the Earthrise picture itself. When the project started, it was the first picture that the team sought to restore. Because of its popularity, it proved surprisingly easy to find; its tape looked different and caused it to be separated out. The image became the project’s Rosetta Stone, showing what other images were based on how their labeling related to the Earthrise.

The project has restored about a dozen pictures so far. “We’re not completely sure of the nomenclature yet,” Cowing said, but he noted that the project is close and will have students working to finalize that soon. As a result, within a couple of months he expects the project to be uncovering up to a dozen images a week, with most of the pictures online by next autumn. And because of the lack of prior organization, “We think we have some images that have never been seen before,” Cowing said. (See photos here and here.)

Greg Landgraf, American Libraries Online
Posted on September 16, 2009.