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Apollo 11: The Importance of Archiving

by Hu Yoshida on Jul 14, 2009

earthrise-after-smallComputerWorld published an interesting article entitled: The Lost NASA Tapes: Restoring Lunar Images after 40 years in the vault.

The title of the article refers to the effort to recover images from film that was taken by the 5 Lunar Orbiters, which were flown in 1966 and 1967 to survey the moon’s surface for the Apollo 11 moon landing which occurred on July 20, 1969. The film had been stored in a vault at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California until 2006. Once the tapes were found, the Ampex FR-900 tapes drives that created the tapes had to be found and restored to read the tape.

While this part of the article makes for very interesting reading, the last half of the article was very disturbing. The Last part was entitled: “The Lost Apollo 11 Tapes.” Yes, the original tapes of the Apollo 11 live, slow scan TV broadcast of the first landing of man on the moon were lost?

According to the Computerworld article, NASA admitted this in 2006 and immediately initiated a search for these tapes which is on going. NASA has had about 220,000 tapes of this type of which only about 15 were of this landing. The search for these tapes has been done everywhere, even in landfills. In order to identify the tapes they have to be read, which is no small task after 40 years. Apparently there was no indexing scheme for storing these tapes and no plan for refreshing the media and formats on a periodic basis.

Fortunately the TV broadcasting stations which recorded off of the live monitor feeds, were more rigorous in archiving their images, but the clarity of these recordings is poor. These images could be enhanced three fold by today’s technology if we had the original tapes. How could such important historic data be lost? Where were the record managers and archivists during this important time in history?

In 1969 I was working for IBM and was assigned to support North American Rockwell where the Apollo capsules were built. My wife and I were newly weds and we stayed up all night to watch this historic event on our 14 inch black and white TV. We took pictures of each other sitting in front of the TV as the landing occurred. I planned to post those pictures on this blog, but unfortunately I had no better luck than NASA. My filing system in those day consisted of a shoe box, and since we have moved so many times since then, I have no idea where they are today.

While we are generating more and more data every day, we are also losing a lot of the meager amounts of data that we had in the past. Technology is available to day to ensure that this does not happen going forward. Archiving and records retention is a key requirement not only for our businesses, but also for our personal lives. You never know what importance that data may have in the future.

The data from the lunar orbiters was originally used to plan the location of the first lunar landing. Today that data is being used with current lunar images to determine the pattern of meteor impacts on the moon’s surface over time, and show the risk of an asteroid impact on the earth, or the impact of global warming.

It is senseless to store data if we can not access it again, much less find it. It is also important to prove that it is what it purports to be. Even if we found the original Apollo 11 tapes, how could we prove that they were the same tapes? Would there be anything to support immutability or chain of custody? There are some people who think that Apollo 11 was a hoax created by the Kennedy administration to support his stated goal to land a man on the moon.  

Remember Apollo 11 on July 20. If we are fortunate, we might see some grainy images of this event on the nightly news.

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Comments (3 )

Stephen Foskett on 15 Jul 2009 at 2:17 pm

I can’t agree more that these precious images are an ideal example of the importance of archiving. One simply cannot return to the moon in 1969 to re-shoot them! This case also demonstrates the peril of offline archiving: Just because you have the tapes doesn’t mean they’re useful.

NASA has learned its lesson… They’re archiving these Apollo 11 images and the forthcoming LRO camera photos online:

Hu Yoshida on 20 Jul 2009 at 3:54 pm

As more information becomes known, it now appears that the origional Apollo 11 tapes may have been re used. Due to budget constraints, NASA may have taped over the origional tapes. It reminds me of an episode on the comedy show, Everybody Loves Raymond, where the husband has to explain to his wife how a football game had been taped over the video of their wedding vows.

[...] link to a blog that reported NASA had found the lost tapes from the Apollo 11 moon landing. I had posted about those lost tapes last month and so I was excited to hear how they were recovered and what new things we could learn from [...]

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