An exhaustive, three-year search for some tapes that contained the original footage of the Apollo 11 moonwalk has concluded that they were probably destroyed during a period when NASA was erasing old magnetic tapes and reusing them to record satellite data.
"We're all saddened that they're not there. We all wish we had 20-20 hindsight," says Dick Nafzger, a TV specialist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, who helped lead the search team.
"I don't think anyone in the NASA organization did anything wrong," Nafzger says. "I think it slipped through the cracks, and nobody's happy about it."
NASA has, however, offered up a consolation prize for the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission — the agency has taken the best available broadcast television footage and contracted with a digital restoration firm to enhance it, so that the public can see the first moonwalk in more detail than ever before.
But the lost tapes mean that the world will probably never again see the original images beamed back to Earth by the lunar camera that is now resting on the moon's dusty Sea of Tranquility, right where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left it.
Lunar Camera Tapes Were Higher Quality
That special lunar camera recorded in an odd format that was incompatible with the format used for broadcast TV. So when the footage was received on Earth back in July of 1969, it had to be converted for the live television broadcast.
The conversion degraded the images, and hundreds of millions of TV viewers saw dark, murky pictures.
Those pictures were still thrilling — after all, it was "Live from the Moon!" and a human was walking on another celestial body for the very first time — but some experts knew that the lunar camera was capable of doing better.
"It was better. We knew it was better," says Stan Lebar, who worked at the Westinghouse Electric Corporation and led the team that designed and built the lunar camera.
He knew that engineers on the ground did preserve the lunar camera's odd-format footage by recording it onto tapes. So a few years ago, Lebar and some colleagues decided to go back and look at those tapes, to see if today's digital technology could use them to produce a higher-quality video.
"The whole thing started with the idea that this is the one piece of television footage that's going to be played for the next 50 or 100 or 300 years," says Lebar. "Those that follow us deserve better than what we had."
But, as NPR first reported back in 2006, the tapes were missing — no one had any idea where they were stored. That report helped trigger a massive search by NASA.
"We had hundreds and hundreds of leads coming to us during this period," says Lebar. "Every one of them was investigated."
Lebar and others spent hours and hours in a vast government storage facility known as the Washington National Records Center, a place that Lebar compares to the giant warehouse at the end of the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The search team combed through "racks of documents, tapes, all kinds of things from NASA and other agencies," says Nafzger.
The search wasn't limited to that one place — the searchers went everywhere from storage businesses to private homes. They pored over logbooks, memos and all kinds of 40-year-old handwritten records.
"We went through old file cabinets that would have little record cards and give you an idea if a shipment went in with the name Apollo on it, and did it have 'Apollo' or 'tape'?" Nafzger says. Or did it have anything on there that could be a tape? So it went to the point of being able to look at anything Apollo-related or tape-related that wasn't distinctly not a possibility."
An Unsettling Discovery
They returned again and again to that vast government warehouse. But then they discovered something disturbing.
Over the years, NASA had removed massive numbers of magnetic tapes from the shelves. In the early 1980s alone, tens of thousands of boxes were withdrawn.
It turns out that new satellites had gone up and were producing a lot of data that needed to be recorded. "These satellites were suddenly using tapes seven days a week, 24 hours a day," says Lebar.
And the agency was experiencing a critical shortage of magnetic tapes. So NASA started erasing old ones and reusing them.
That's probably what happened to the original footage from the moon that the astronauts captured with their lunar camera, says Lebar. It was stored on telemetry tapes, and old tapes with telemetry data were being recycled.
"So I don't believe that the tapes exist today at all," says Lebar. "It was a hard thing to accept. But there was just an overwhelming amount of evidence that led us to believe that they just don't exist anymore. And you have to accept reality."
Still, Nafzger says, they didn't want to give up completely on their mission. "Our goal was to provide to the world the best possible video of a historic event we could for the future," he says.
Help From Hollywood Experts
Since the raw footage appeared to be gone, the team decided to try to find the best of what was preserved in the converted, broadcast format. They reviewed tapes in Australia and tapes in the CBS News archive, and looked at kinescopes — recordings of television made by filming the picture from a video monitor — at Johnson Space Center that no one had watched in 36 years.
The quality of broadcast TV in 1969 "varied extremely between sources," says Nafzger. Using all of these sources, they pieced together the best possible version of the moonwalk. And then, to make it even better, they turned to the magic of Hollywood.
Lowry Digital of Burbank, Calif., has digitally restored all kinds of old movies, from Disney's Bambi to the Star Wars trilogy. Its founder, John Lowry, actually worked on improving footage from later Apollo missions at the beginning of his career. So he was excited about the opportunity to restore pictures of the Apollo 11 moonwalk.
Lowry says more than a hundred computers processed the images, carefully removing things like random noise and camera shake, without destroying the images' historical legitimacy.
"We've got to be very, very mindful of history," says Lowry. "If you want to go to the extreme, you could take these images and completely re-create them. You could create a three-dimensional model of the lunar lander, and you could make it look beautiful. But I don't think that's the point. I think the point is that Apollo 11 was a very, very special historical event."
A New 'First Step On The Moon'
Recently, at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Nafzger sat down at a computer loaded with the restored video, which he'd just received from California the day before. He called up a side by side comparison of the old and new — although he cautioned that the restoration is ongoing and won't be complete until September.
In the old, fuzzy footage of Neil Armstrong coming down the ladder of his LEM spacecraft, "there's nothing but a dark image and possibly a foot," says Nafzger. "If I told you it was a foot, you'd probably say, 'OK, must be a foot.' "
That same scene is much improved in the new version. "You can see the structure of the LEM, you can see his full outline of his body," says Nafzger, who points to a reflection in Armstrong's helmet that couldn't be seen before. "It's still not pristine, it's not clean and detailed, but it's now an astronaut, and it's something no one saw before — this is the first step on the moon." Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.