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Apollo 11 missing tapes

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The Apollo 11 missing tapes are the missing slow-scan television (SSTV) recordings of the lunar transmissions broadcast during the Apollo 11 moonwalk, the first time astronauts walked on the Moon. The tapes carried SSTV and telemetry data recorded onto analog data recording tape. A real-time conversion from SSTV format to standard TV format was needed, to allow transmission of the broadcast on standard television. Tapes of the Apollo 11 moonwalk SSTV signal before the scan conversion are missing and are believed to have been erased and reused. If the original SSTV format tapes were found, modern technology could be easily and cheaply used to make a higher-quality conversion, yielding better images than those originally seen. Several still photographs along with a few short segments of super 8 movie film taken of a video monitor in Australia showing the SSTV transmission before its scan conversion exist.

The scan-converted video of the moonwalk was broadcast live around the world in July 1969. Videotapes and kinescopes were made of this converted video at that time and are not missing.[1] In 2009 NASA gathered copies of the converted video and paid to have them restored by Lowry Digital.


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Photo of the high-quality SSTV image before the scan conversion

The degraded image after the SSTV scan conversion

The video of the Apollo 11 moonwalk was transmitted in SSTV format of 10 frames per second and 320 lines of resolution (see Apollo TV camera). This was incompatible with the existing NTSC, PAL, and SECAM television standards, so a format conversion was required. The SSTV signals were received by the radio telescopes at Parkes Observatory, the Goldstone tracking station, and Honeysuckle Creek tracking station.[2][3] This signal was split and sent to both a data tape recorder and to equipment that converted the signal to standard TV format for viewing on conventional televisions around the world. The crude real-time scan conversion for worldwide broadcast was not done electronically but, rather, was done by using a conventional television camera pointed at a monitor that displayed the SSTV images.[4] The scan conversion reduced the contrast, brightness and resolution of the original SSTV video, and introduced noise into the pictures. The resulting video seen on home television sets was further degraded in quality by the long analog transmission path via satellite the signal took from the receiving ground stations back to Houston, Texas. From there the signal went by microwave relay towers to New York, and from there to the rest of the United States. As this happened, the raw and unconverted SSTV data was recorded onto fourteen-inch reels of one inch wide, fourteen-track analog magnetic data tapes at 120 inches per second.[5]

The lower quality, post-scan-conversion video of the Apollo 11 moonwalk was recorded in real-time onto videotape and kinescope. These recordings exist and are available to the public. (High quality video from the other Project Apollo missions exists and is also available to the public.) If the SSTV tapes were to be found, modern technology would allow the production of higher quality television pictures of the Apollo 11 moonwalk than were seen by the public. See the comparison photographs.[6] An amateur 8 mm film movie of about 15 minutes of the Apollo 11 SSTV images (before conversion) was rediscovered in 2005 and is available on DVD.[3]

Search for the missing tapes

Photo of the high-quality SSTV image before the scan conversion

The degraded image after the SSTV scan conversion

The missing tapes are among over 700 boxes of magnetic tapes on which data was recorded during the Apollo program which can no longer be found.[5] On August 16, 2006 NASA announced its official search saying: “The original tapes may be at the Goddard Space Flight Center … or at another location within the NASA archiving system“, “NASA engineers are hopeful that when the tapes are found they can use today’s digital technology to provide a version of the moonwalk that is much better quality than what we have today.[7]

The news that the tapes were missing broke publicly on August 5, 2006 when the printed and online versions of The Sydney Morning Herald published the story with the title One giant blunder for mankind: how NASA lost moon pictures.[8]

NASA particularly wishes to find these tapes because the new Project Orion will carry out the same tasks as the original Apollo Command and Service Modules: “Get a team of astronauts to the moon and back safely”.[9]

The Goddard Center’s Data Evaluation Laboratory, which has the only known piece of equipment capable of reading the missing tapes, was set to be closed in October 2006 causing some to fear that, even if the tapes are later found, it might not be possible to read and copy them.[10] However, equipment that could read the tapes was maintained.[2]

On November 1, 2006 Cosmos Magazine reported that some other lost telemetry tapes have been discovered in a small marine science laboratory in the main physics building at the Curtin University of Technology in Perth, Western Australia. One of these tapes has since been sent to NASA for analysis. It contained no video, but it did prove that the data could be read if the tapes are found.[11][12]

NASA news conference

On July 16, 2009 NASA held a media briefing where it released improved video footage from the live broadcast of the Apollo 11 moonwalk – some of which have been in storage for nearly 40 years. They concluded that the tapes with the SSTV signal that had been shipped from Australia to Goddard were routinely erased and reused a few years later. A backup copy of the tapes that was made in Australia was also erased after Goddard received the tapes. There is documentation of two hours of the Apollo 11 moonwalk SSTV being recorded in Australia on a different format of tape, but these tapes have not been found. The primary reason that the SSTV signal was recorded on telemetry data tapes was in case of a failure of the real-time conversion and broadcast around the world. Since the real-time broadcast worked and was widely recorded on both videotape and film, the backup video was not deemed important at the time.[2]

NASA stated that it did find several post-conversion copies of the video that are of higher quality than has been seen by the public. These include videotape recorded in Sydney after the conversion but before the satellite transmission around the world, videotape from CBS News archives (direct from NASA, without commentary), and kinescopes at Johnson Space Center. They are in the process of restoring this video for release in September 2009 and previewed some samples.[13][14][15][16]

See also


External links

Restored post-conversion video