Orig­i­nal moon land­ing film lost; tapes show sharper images

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Robert Colvile

The orig­i­nal film footage of astro­naut Neil Arm­strong’s first steps on the moon, one of the most im­por­tant ar­ti­facts of the 20th cen­tury, has been lost.

The television broad­cast seen by about 600 mil­lion peo­ple in July 1969 is pre­served for pos­ter­ity, but the orig­i­nal tapes from which the footage was taken have been mis­laid, most likely in NASA’s vast archives at the God­dard Space Flight Cen­ter in Mary­land.

The­footage could trans­form our view of the moon land­ings, of­fer­ing images far sharper than the blurred, grainy video show­naround the world. It also could lay to rest the con­spir­acy the­ory that the land­ings were faked on a Hol­ly­wood sound­stage.

De­spite its iconic sta­tus, the television footage was the equiv­a­lent of a pho­to­copy of a pho­to­copy. It came from a cam­era that had been pointed at a black-and-white mon­i­tor on Earth. The im­age on the mon­i­tor, in turn, had been stripped of much of its de­tail.

To make sure the trans­mis­sion would make it back to Earth, the images sent from Apollo 11 were recorded at 10 frames per sec­ond, and had to be con­verted to 60 frames per sec­ond in or­der to be broad­cast. In the process, much of the de­tail was lost.

Stan Le­bar, now 81, was in charge of the images from Apollo 11. What he saw was so blurred that he ini­tially thought some­thing had gone wrong.

“My im­me­di­ate re­ac­tion when I looked over at my coun­ter­parts at NASA was, ‘What’s hap­pen­ing?’ ” he re­called. “We thought there had been a prob­lem get­ting the con­verter to work prop­erly.”

“What was broad­cast to the world was nowhere near as good as what was re­ceived,” said John Sarkissian of the Com­mon­wealth Sci­en­tific and In­dus­trial Re­search Or­ga­ni­za­tion’s Parkes Ob­ser­va­tory in Aus­tralia, one of the three track­ing sta­tions that taped the orig­i­nal footage be­fore send­ing it on to Hous­ton in con­verted form.

Those tapes, al­though nowhere near the stan­dard of nor­mal television trans­mis­sions, would be of far bet­ter qual­ity than the video we have to­day, es­pe­cially if pro­cessed us­ing mod­ern dig­i­tal tech­niques.

Rather than priz­ing the tapes as vi­tal record­ings, NASA sim­ply filed them away. As per­son­nel re­tired or died, the lo­ca­tion of the tapes was forgotten.

Such prob­lems are not unique to NASA.

“I just think this is what hap­pens when you have a large gov­ern­ment bu­reau­cracy that func­tions for decade af­ter decade,” said Keith Cow­ing, ed­i­tor of the Web site NA­SAWatch.com. “It’s not ma­li­cious or in­ten­tional, but I think it’s un­for­tu­nate that NASA doesn’t have maybe just one more per­son whose job it is to look back at its his­tory.”

At the start of this year, a coali­tion of sci­en­tists and NASA vet­er­ans — in­clud­ing Mr. Le­bar, Mr. Sarkissian and Richard Nafzger, a se­nior en­gi­neer at NASA— be­gan to hunt through the archives.

They have de­duced that the tapes were for­warded to the U.S. Na­tional Archives be­fore be­ing called back by NASA to be stored at the God­dard Space Flight Cen­ter.

God­dard is also home to the only equip­ment that can still play the tapes, which use an ob­so­lete 14inch for­mat — equip­ment that was due to be dis­man­tled in Oc­to­ber un­til Mr. Nafzger in­ter­vened.

Now the group hopes to per­suade NASA to de­vote enough man­power to the search.

A spokesman for the space agency said: “We’re try­ing to track them down through the pa­per­work cre­ated at the time. But it’s 35 years ago, so it’s a chal­lenge.”

Mr. Cow­ing said: “For all we know, it’s sit­ting some­where in a nice, cool dry place, ex­actly where it should be, but some­one’s mis­la­beled a rout­ing slip. I can’t imag­ine they’d throw this stuff out.”

As­so­ci­ated Press

A world away: The television broad­cast of the moon land­ing in July 1969 has iconic sta­tus, but it is the equiv­a­lent of a pho­to­copy of a pho­to­copy, NASA sci­en­tists say.

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