I have many old documents, pictures, old 8-mm movie film, and other things that I wish to keep. It certainly is embarrassing when I go to look for something and cannot find it. I think I know how NASA feels.
It seems that NASA videotaped one of the most significant events in the history of mankind. Neil Armstrong's "one small step" on the moon is considered among the most important events of the 20th century. But the original NASA videotapes have been mislaid in a labyrinth of archives in the United States. NASA and the U.S. National Archives cannot find the tapes.
Six hundred million of us watched the event on television. I remember how "grainy" the pictures from the moon appeared. It is not widely known that the Apollo 11 television broadcast from the moon was a high-quality transmission, far sharper than the blurry version relayed instantly to the world on that July day in 1969.
NASA's video signals in 1969 were incompatible with standard television standards. As a result, NASA could not directly rebroadcast the live video from the moon. What all of us at home saw was created by a standard television camera placed in front of one of NASA's non-standard video monitors. It worked, but a lot of resolution was lost. We saw a poor reproduction of the video that the NASA engineers watched.
Only a handful of people ever saw the high-quality original images shot at 10 frames per second and beamed back to the Australian tracking station at the CSIRO Parkes Observatory in New South Wales. "What was broadcast to the world was nowhere near as good as what was received," said John Sarkissian, a CSIRO scientist stationed at Parkes for a decade. Even Polaroid photographs of the screen showed that the original images received by Parkes are significantly sharper than what the public saw.
Luckily, NASA recorded all the original video on videotape. Not so luckily, NASA then lost the tapes.
When the images reached the tracking station, they were transferred onto one-inch, 60-frame-per-second tape and sent to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Houston for safekeeping. All the Apollo mission flights and moon landings were captured in this way and transferred onto one-inch tapes. The tapes were stored in 2614 boxes containing five reels of tape each and held for years in the National Archives in Maryland, outside Washington D.C.
No one knows why, but in 1984 about 700 boxes of space flight tapes there were returned to Goddard. "We have the documents to say they were withdrawn, but no one knows exactly where they went," Sarkissian said. He also states that many people involved in the videotapes and their later transfer have since retired or died. Only two of 700 original Apollo 11 tapes have been found. Also among tapes feared missing are the original recordings of the other five Apollo moon landings.
The only known equipment on which the original analogue tapes can be decoded is at a Goddard Center set to close in October, raising fears that, even if they are found before they deteriorate, copying them may be impossible. A NASA spokesman admits that even if the tapes eventually are found, they may be corroded beyond the point where the information can be retrieved.
I think I'll go make some duplicates of my own videotape collection.