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"I could not morally get rid of this stuff."
March 26, 2009 1:20 AM   Subscribe

Once dubbed the Picture of the Century, the first Earthrise, photographed in 1966 by NASA's Lunar Orbiter 1, presented "a stunning juxtaposition of planet and moon that no earthling had ever seen before." After initially inspiring awe, the original image was almost destroyed. In the mad rush of the space race, the pictures and data from early missions were warehoused and forgotten. Many at NASA believed that the original high-resolution images, stored on fragile tapes that could only be read by obsolete equipment, would be nearly impossible to retrieve, but one woman was determined to see them restored. Via.
posted by amyms (37 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is excellent.

I remember reading that one of the problems with recovering old space probe data is that, after this many years, the oxide starts flaking off the tape— the LATimes article didn't mention if they had to deal with that problem, though…
posted by hattifattener at 1:47 AM on March 26, 2009


Moonviews.com posted a picture series that traces the journey of the FN-900 from Evans' garage to McDonalds.
posted by kid ichorous at 2:02 AM on March 26, 2009 [4 favorites]


Very cool, kid ichorous, thanks! That link provides great visual context for the descriptions in the L.A. Times article.
posted by amyms at 2:13 AM on March 26, 2009


Good post. I'm a bit confused; is that 300x633 pixels Earthrise picture in the article full-resolution?
posted by Harald74 at 2:17 AM on March 26, 2009


That's one small task for an archivist, one giant gift for mankind.
posted by mattdidthat at 2:43 AM on March 26, 2009


I'm a bit confused; is that 300x633 pixels Earthrise picture in the article full-resolution?

Here's a better version.
posted by amyms at 2:49 AM on March 26, 2009 [7 favorites]


Great post.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:58 AM on March 26, 2009


If the format of the data is known, why wouldn't it have been easier to scan the tapes with modern equipment, to produce a higher-resolution digitized image of the magnetic data on each tape, then extract the data from the digitized images?
posted by aeschenkarnos at 3:13 AM on March 26, 2009


posted by aeschenkarnos If the format of the data is known, why wouldn't it have been easier to scan the tapes with modern equipment, to produce a higher-resolution digitized image of the magnetic data on each tape, then extract the data from the digitized images?

Because, according to the article, the only way to read the tapes was with the old equipment.
posted by mattdidthat at 3:21 AM on March 26, 2009


What I think is really cool is that the Orbiter satellites took 70mm film pictures and developed them with and ONBOARD DARKROOM and scanned them and sent the data to Earth. Does this mean that the analog original negatives are still up there on the satellites? Assuming they haven't crashed into the moon by now? Or been taken back to other far reaches of the galaxy as souvenirs by non-earthlings?

I wonder what that kind of space exposure would do to the film.
posted by chillmost at 3:32 AM on March 26, 2009


If the format of the data is known, why wouldn't it have been easier to scan the tapes with modern equipment, to produce a higher-resolution digitized image of the magnetic data on each tape, then extract the data from the digitized images?

You need to read the tape at a particular speed, with a tape head mechanism that is set up to read data off the tapes in a manner that is essentially the reverse of how the data was first written onto the tape. Once you have the data, it has to be processed in such a way that you get usable signal. For example, there might be error correction and other signals that need to be dealt with to recover the data of interest.

That's probably why they needed old hardware, in that reverse engineering the tapes to build a replacement device would probably be incredibly expensive (if at all possible) and may damage data on rare tapes sacrificed to make such a device.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:40 AM on March 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Not the first time this has happened -- much of the Pioneer data was, for a long time, readable only from printouts -- NASA didn't have a tape drive that could read the data off the tapes. Another data set that was unreadable for a long time was the "dust detector" data from the first three moon landings -- it was on 7 track 556BPI, and they didn't have the IBM 729 tape drive that could read the data.

Finally, one was located in Australia, the owners gladly lent it to NASA. It took quite a bit of work to restore the drive to working order, but they were able to read off a bunch of tapes to newer media -- I know most of the Apollo data tapes were read, I wonder if the Pioneer tapes were also.

This isn't as common a problem as it used to be -- there were, for example, orders of magnitudes more 5.25" 360K floppy drives made than old seven track data tape drives, but it still worries anyone concerned with data retention. I think CD and DVD will be safe for a while, because of the huge installed base of players and the open documentation on how to read them. (In this case, media lifetime is far more worrisome that player lifetime -- esp. since modern Blu-Ray players can read DVD and CD data.)
posted by eriko at 4:07 AM on March 26, 2009 [3 favorites]


What I liked most about the article is that ONE person had the moxie and did what was right in the face of massive bureaucracy. Her dedication to archiving this piece of history is fantastic. Excellent post!
posted by zerobyproxy at 4:25 AM on March 26, 2009


Great post! New Desktop Background!
posted by sciurus at 4:52 AM on March 26, 2009


What I liked most about the article is that ONE person had the moxie and did what was right in the face of massive bureaucracy...

Well, let's be fair to the bureaucracy. NASA is constantly under the hammer to slash costs to the bone and, unfortunately, a data recovery project such as this, where they are spending money to restore ancient tape drives in order to retrieve 40-year-old photos, is one of the first things an eagle-eyed budget-cutting Congresscritter would latch onto as fat and waste, unceremoniously crossing it out of the budget, while publicly holding it up as an example of NASA's "inability to focus on their core mission." You get the picture.

That said, I absolutely applaud this great woman and the mission she undertook to preserve this incredible history.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:52 AM on March 26, 2009 [10 favorites]


The images will be of more than historical interest. In April, NASA is scheduled to launch the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to again map the moon. This time it will be looking for a site to erect a permanent human base.

By comparing the new images with the old ones, scientists will be able to study changes in the lunar surface. That information could be invaluable to colonists.


What changes? I thought that without an atmosphere and no known volcanism, the moon's surface is supposed to remain essentially unchanged forever, unless disturbed by meteorite impacts.
posted by notmtwain at 5:25 AM on March 26, 2009


This is a spectacular waste of tax dollars. I love it. We need to waste more tax dollars like this. Far better use of the money than handing it to a failed bank, in my mind.

Seriously, we spent millions acquiring this data, so restoring and archiving it makes sense. Those images are part of our cultural consciousness. More importantly, they're the property of the public. We have the right to keep them available, even if it's expensive to recover them.
posted by caution live frogs at 5:36 AM on March 26, 2009


It brings tears to my eyes that they were just about to throw all of those images away. Thank you, Nancy Evans!
posted by limeonaire at 5:46 AM on March 26, 2009


What changes? I thought that without an atmosphere and no known volcanism, the moon's surface is supposed to remain essentially unchanged forever, unless disturbed by meteorite impacts.

Well, the images would certainly help them assess the danger meteorites might pose to a potential base there...
posted by limeonaire at 5:48 AM on March 26, 2009


What changes? I thought that without an atmosphere and no known volcanism, the moon's surface is supposed to remain essentially unchanged forever, unless disturbed by meteorite impacts.

Exactly, which is why that data would be useful to future colonists.
posted by b1tr0t at 6:11 AM on March 26, 2009


Wow, I had no idea. I wish I could hug that Nancy Evans for doing what she did!
posted by geeky at 9:00 AM on March 26, 2009


Thank you for an outstanding link, amyms!
posted by Lynsey at 9:46 AM on March 26, 2009


Great story; a previous post (with links to others) on lunar photographs; a previous post on NASA's (lack of) data-retention practices.
posted by TedW at 9:59 AM on March 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Great photo. When I was in elementary school in the 1970s in Boise, Idaho, some friends of my family had this single, huge image covering an entire wall of their dining room. It was awesome.
posted by Ratio at 10:02 AM on March 26, 2009


What changes? I thought that without an atmosphere and no known volcanism, the moon's surface is supposed to remain essentially unchanged forever, unless disturbed by meteorite impacts.

Well that's the theory anyways. In the words of Bill Nye one test is worth a thousand expert opinions. It's those "Hmm, that's funny" moments in science that so often turn out to be very exciting.
posted by Mitheral at 10:11 AM on March 26, 2009


What I think is really cool is that the Orbiter satellites took 70mm film pictures and developed them with and ONBOARD DARKROOM and scanned them and sent the data to Earth. Does this mean that the analog original negatives are still up there on the satellites? Assuming they haven't crashed into the moon by now? Or been taken back to other far reaches of the galaxy as souvenirs by non-earthlings?

It mentioned in the article that both orbiters crashed (or were intentionally crashed, more likely) into the moon after completing their missions.

Unfortunately I doubt the film is still viable. Even if it survived the crash, and was protected in some sort of canister that kept it from being bleached by sunlight, the temperature fluctuations on the Moon's surface are intense: -153C to 107C (-243F to 224F), night to day. Not exactly archival storage conditions.

Plus, if the film was only designed to act as a sensor medium -- just something to freeze and carry an image from a camera to a scanner -- the chemistry it was developed with might not have been stable. If you don't care about long-term stability you can cut a lot of corners when processing film, use something akin to a Polaroid process. It's entirely possible that the images didn't survive on the film much past the scanning process.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:57 AM on March 26, 2009 [2 favorites]


Great story, thanks amyms. Evans deserves a medal.
posted by homunculus at 11:59 AM on March 26, 2009


NASA's page on the project.
posted by TedW at 1:58 PM on March 26, 2009


And here is NASA's page on the Lunar Orbiter program with links to more detailed information on the cameras and other information about the project.
posted by TedW at 2:08 PM on March 26, 2009


(or were intentionally crashed, more likely)

From one of NASA's many pages on the program:

Lunar Orbiter II had sufficient attitude control gas to survive until early November. Ground control operators planned to impact it into the Apollo zone on the Moon's surface even though analysis of tracking data indicated that it could probably remain in orbit one or two years. longer. Once the spacecraft lost its attitude control gas, however, it would become a derelict in orbit, beyond the control of ground operations. Program officials deemed it necessary, therefore, to crash the spacecraft while they could, to avoid any potential communications interference in future manned missions. They also planned to lower Lunar Orbiter III's apolune to make its orbit as circular as possible for further training for Apollo tracking. However, expiration of its gas would soon mean that it, too, would have to be crashed.

In case you wondered I was growing up while this was going on and the early days of NASA are still fascinating to me.
posted by TedW at 2:19 PM on March 26, 2009


If you look closely at the large (2Mb) photo, you can clearly see it's a fake.

I learned that NASA had two or three more of the big-ass Moon Rockets. There could have been more missions. I think it's a crying shame they weren't used. It seems to me the space program has been shambles as of late. Some truly awesome technology shot off onto Mars and into deep space, but not so much of the human-going-a-long-distance thing.

Seems to me we should be prepping for that. We have to get off this planet sooner or later.
posted by five fresh fish at 7:44 PM on March 26, 2009


Well, that didn't work. I was starting off with the "moon landings are a hoax" ha-ha, but utterly killed it by talking about the space program. Heck, I probably should have claimed I'd been to the penisula NASA is on, and stumbled across an old moon terrain movie set in one of the more obsure parts of the nearby park.
posted by five fresh fish at 7:48 PM on March 26, 2009


"penisula", ha! peninsula! dumbass!
posted by five fresh fish at 7:50 PM on March 26, 2009


fff, see Apollo 18-20. There were three vehicles left over, of which one was used to launch Skylab, and the others are now on display at NASA facilities.

On the one hand, I'm now more skeptical about the value of manned space exploration, and wonder what these extra missions could have realistically contributed. On the other hand, looking back, it really wouldn't have cost that much more in the grand scheme of things since they already had the vehicles. One of them might have been a long-duration orbital survey mission, but that was performed admirably (much) later on by Lunar Prospector.

But frankly, even the official NASA post-Apollo vision saw limited utility for manned missions beyond PR. Without a concerted effort to establish a moon scientific base (and the limitations that accompany that are plainer to me now than in my adolescence), it's hard to see why we should have gone back to the Moon.
posted by dhartung at 10:33 PM on March 26, 2009


I saw one of the Apollo launches at NASA. Humongous thing, really impressive compared to the earlier rockets.

But where was the second one you claim they have? I did not see it on display.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:31 PM on March 26, 2009


If you look closely at the large (2Mb) photo, you can clearly see it's a fake.

And what is clearly fake about it? The only thing I noticed was vertical scanning artifacts visible on the Earth portion.
posted by metaplectic at 1:03 AM on March 27, 2009


Nevermind.
posted by metaplectic at 1:05 AM on March 27, 2009


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