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NASA Searches for Missing Tapes of 1969 Moon Landing

15 August 2006

The U.S. space agency NASA has stepped up its search for the original videotapes of the first moon landing in 1969. The tapes are missing, but NASA does not consider them lost. They are of higher visual quality than the images the world saw 37 years ago.

Much of the world was watching on television when the commander of the Apollo-11 mission, Neil Armstrong, took the first steps on the moon in July 1969.

ARMSTRONG: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

The pictures of that historic footstep and everything else about that and subsequent Apollo moon landings, including flight data and astronaut health readings, were recorded on magnetic tape at three NASA ground tracking stations around the world. The tapes were then shipped to a NASA operations center near Washington, the Goddard Space Flight Center.

In late 1969, the space agency began transferring them and tens of thousands of tapes from other space missions to a nearby U.S. government archives warehouse. NASA says it asked for them back in the 1970s, but now does not know where they are.

"I probably am overly sensitive to the word 'lost.' I do not feel they are lost," said Richard Nafzger, a Goddard Space Flight Center engineer who was in charge of television processing from all of NASA's ground receiving sites.

The space agency has authorized him to set aside his other duties for the foreseeable future and devote his time to the hunt for the tapes. Nafzger says they are stored somewhere.

"We had very good procedures on documenting everything, where it went," he added. "So I think we're tracking paperwork to see if it's in a storage facility outside of Goddard, possibly at Goddard, or were there some other procedures taken to [dispose of] these tapes for some reason. But they would all be documented."

One possible disposition might have been erasure of the tapes for re-use. The Internet website Space.com quotes a retired Apollo tracking station engineer as saying that telemetry recording tapes were expensive, $100 per reel, so they might have been wiped clean as a money saving measure.

This would obviously be a big disappointment to Nafzger and the rest of NASA. The tapes contained the highest resolution images of the moon landing in existence. Because NASA's space video system was incompatible with broadcast standards, it retransmitted the live images to the world by pointing a standard television camera at a TV screen, offering lower quality video still available today.

"It was pretty good, but nowhere near as good as we can do today with the digital technology we could use on the original tapes to convert it to broadcast TV," he noted.

If the tapes are located and still in good condition, we might finally see the moon's surface almost as Neil Armstrong saw it.

ARMSTRONG: "It has a stark beauty all its own. It's like much of the high desert of the United States. It's different, but it's very pretty out here."

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