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40th Anniversary of Apollo 11 Moonwalk and the loss of data

Filed under: archival practices,data storage,history,oral history,video — 2009-07-17 by Richard L. Hess — Last Edit 2009-07-17 by Richard L. Hess

There has been much discussion over the last few years about finding and saving original tapes of the Apollo 11 Moonwalk videos downlinked from the moon. There is also an exciting project going on to restore and digitize the Lunar Orbiter tapes from more than 40 years ago.

The Lunar Orbiter tape digitization folks have just posted a commentary that bears reading by all archivists who are holding tapes. You may link to it here. The main site is

NASA, in their press conference yesterday held at The Newseum, admitted that the original 14-track 1-inch instrumentation (IRIG) tapes that contained the slow-scan video direct from the moon were most likely recycled and reused for later missions. Apparently, over 350,000 reels of instrumentation tape were recycled by NASA over time. No one apparently thought to preserve the 45-odd reels of the original moon walk.

The loss of the original IRIG tapes of the moonwalk is truly sad because this data could be re-converted to standard television formats using far superior methods than were available in 1969. There may be 2-inch helical Ampex VR-660 video tapes still extant of the slow-scan data,  but those have not surfaced. It appears that all surviving copies of the moonwalk videos are ones that had gone through optical standards converters. An optical standards converter is one that has a monitor displaying the image in real time in the transmitted standard and a television camera taking a picture of that monitor using the desired standard. Even the Australian Broadcasting Corp. tapes would have gone through this type of device, although they would be in PAL rather than the U.S.’s NTSC versions.

Lowry Digital is doing a great job of restoring what they have, but the Polaroid screen shot that survives of the slow-scan monitor is alluring of what could have been preserved. More information is available on the Parkes website and from NASA.

Vigilant migration of data as new storage techniques become available is the only way to assure long-term preservation. Even if the IRIG tapes are found, we are almost at the point where the tapes would be un-decipherable. I think one of my machines could play them (I say think as I’ve never tested it to full 500 kHz bandwidth), but I don’t have the specialized video decoder. NASA apparently preserved some equipment should the tapes ever show up.

This also raises another spectre. We MUST be selective as to what we keep in our archives because if we keep everything we won’t be able to afford it–or find it. This is one of the key jobs that archivists do. However, blindly following retention practices, as was done by NASA for the IRIG Apollo 11 tapes, needs to be tempered by historians as well. Certain small subsets of data (moonwalk slow scan video) are much more important than others (astronauts’ blood pressure and other biometrics throughout the entire flight).

All organizations who keep archives need to address this. In a generation (or less) if we save everything, it will become an overwhelming burden and the high points will be lost if they are not properly indexed.

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