NASA and LOIRP Return to the Moon, 42 Years Later. Recovering Lunar Orbiter Images
Some technology stories are so bizarre that they’re truly stranger than fiction. This is one of those stories. The longer you read, the stranger it becomes.
This story on MSNBC let me know that NASA and the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project (LOIRP) had just released a restored photo captured by the Lunar Orbiters, spacecraft that orbited the Earth’s Moon in 1966 and 1967 and photographed the Moon’s surface in preparation for the subsequent Apollo landings. The Lunar Orbiter photographed the moon on film, developed the film, scanned the film, and then transmitted the scanned images back to the Earth using analog video.
For a really nice description of the Eastman Kodak camera used in the Lunar Orbiters, watch this clip:
Initially, according to this more detailed version of the story, NASA planned to take the incoming telemetry and use it to directly print images on paper, which would then be used to plan the Apollo landings. That may seem pretty silly in the 21st-century iPod era, but in 1966 the crude state of computing and digital-storage technology didn’t permit the sort of image capture, storage, manipulation, and analysis that we routinely do today on any random PC. Even so, an engineer named Charles J Byrne realized that tape recordings of the Lunar Orbiter telemetry transmissions might find future use. Byrne wrote a memo to NASA project management containing the following conclusion: “…the ability to fully optimize the later site survey missions on the basis of early Lunar Orbiter data depends on an immediate decision to provide tape recorders.”
As a direct result of Byrne’s memo, NASA installed AMPEX FR-900 2-inch analog videotape recorders at three tracking stations around the world to capture and store the telemetry. After the end of the Apollo program, NASA stored the tapes, first at a facility in Maryland and then at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
Now from my direct experience with HP 9825A tape cartridges, I know that magnetic tapes from the 1970s (let alone from the 1960s) have problems. Unless proper storage protocols are used, the oxide on the tapes flakes off of the Mylar backing and the tape becomes useless. Apparently, the proper protocols were use to store the Lunar Orbiter telemetry tapes.
The same cannot be said for the FR-900 videotape recorders. The Lunar Orbiter tapes had come under the care of NASA’s Nancy Evans, co-founder of NASA’s Planetary Data System, which is an archive for NASA data. Realizing the value of the data on the tapes, Evans started an internal project to recover the data from the tapes before they became unusable. To that end, Evans gathered a few surplus FR-900 videotape recorders with the intent of refurbishing them and then extracting the telemetry data from the Lunar Orbiter tapes. She and her coworkers got the surplus tape drives running but without funding, the project petered out. Evans then retired from NASA in the early 1990s and became a veterinarian. NASA considered the tape drives surplus and Evans took them home and stored them in her garage. For two decades.
In 2007, Evans started planning her second retirement and started to get serious about reclaiming the lost space in her garage. Her efforts drew the attention of Dennis Wingo, author of "Moonrush: Improving Life on Earth with the Moon’s Resources" and the president of SkyCorp, an aerospace engineering company in Huntsville, Alabama that specializes in space communications. Wingo sent an email to Keith Cowing, who founded a space-oriented news service called Spaceref Interactive in 1999. Cowing and Wingo determined that there might be commercial value in recovering the Lunar Orbiter data. They also determined that the tapes were still available. So they obtained Evan’s stored recorders and the Lunar Orbiter tapes.
And they headed to McDonalds! Specifically, they moved the tapes and equipment to a recently closed McDonalds restaurant on the grounds of NASA’s Ames facility in Mountain View, California. There, they refurbished the tape drives and eventually got an image off of a tape.
Here’s a video clip of the Lunar Orbiter tapes being read at the McDonalds:
Many more moon images to come. (UPDATE: More LOIRP images here.)
You really can’t write fiction like this.
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