The 1960s moon in high-def

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A little over 40 years ago, to help it select potential landing sites for its Apollo lunar missions, NASA sent five unmanned spacecraft over two years to orbit the moon and photograph pretty much every inch of its surface.

The images sent back were amazing, especially one of the Earth rising over the moon’s surface–but by modern standards they were pretty mediocre-looking.

Last week, NASA re-released that image again: only this time, in the argot of TV, it’s “high-def.”

It was an astonishing transformation–and if not for one man’s foresight 43 years ago, it never would have happened.

Charles J. Byrne, a Bellcomm, Inc., engineer, realized as the Lunar Orbiter missions were being planned that NASA didn’t have any plans to archive the data that would be sent back.

The Lunar Orbiters captured their images on 70mm film, which was developed right inside the orbiters, then scanned for transmission back to Earth, where the data was re-assembled into images and re-photographed…making the final product the equivalent of a photocopy of a photocopy.

Byrne suggested that the telemetry from the orbiters should also be stored on magnetic tape in case it was needed again later. NASA agreed, and installed AMPEX FR-900 2-inch analog tape recorders at its tracking stations to capture the data.

When lunar exploration wound down, the tapes–1,500 in all–were placed in storage in Maryland. In the 1980s they were transferred to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, under the care of Nancy Evans, co-founder of the NASA Planetary Data System. She and Mark Nelson from Caltech began collecting surplus FR-900 tape drives and refurbishing them, with the goal of digitizing the analog data on the tapes…but they ran out of funding.

Shortly thereafter, they both left NASA. Evans took the FR-900 drives with her as government surplus. She and Nelson tried to raise private money to continue the project, but failed. For the next two decades, the tape drives gathered dust in Evans’s garage in Sun Valley, California.

In 2007, Evans, about to retire from her second career as a veterinarian, tried to find someone to take the drives. Dennis Wingo, president of the aerospace engineering firm SkyCorp, Inc.–and author of a book on exploiting lunar resources–was interested, and contacted Keith Cowing, who runs a company called SpaceRef Interactive.

NASA’s Ames Research Centre gave them space (a recently closed McDonald’s, soon dubbed McMoon’s) in which to work. The first step was to clean and restore the four refrigerator-sized tape drives, which took about three months.

After that, it took further experimentation to figure out how data was organized on the tapes. They got a bit of help from Charles Byrnes himself–he just happened to be at Ames for a conference and they asked him to stop by–but a bigger clue came from an accompanying audio track on the tapes. They heard the voice of the tracking station operator commenting that he could see Earth, and that helped them match the accompanying data to a specific image: Earthrise above the moon.

When they recreated the image, they immediately saw an improvement in quality: it had roughly twice the resolution of the copy-of-a-copy scanned film archived by the U.S. Geological Study. And they tape they had recreated it from was itself a copy: the original could provide data for an even higher-resolution image.

As NASA works on its return to the moon, it will be able to compare images from next year’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to the images from 40 years ago, helping it understand how the moon’s surface changes over time. That’s valuable enough to NASA that it has provided more funding for the project, whose next goal is a more thorough–and expensive–overhaul of the old tape machines.

To that end, new images will be released to the public as they are fully processed and calibrate to the standard lunar mapping coordinates now in use, so they can once again set imaginations soaring, just as they did four decades ago.

“This is a time machine,” says Cowing. “It is reaching back into time and through history, bringing information forth. We want everyone to see it.”

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1 comment

    • Rick LeBlanc on November 17, 2008 at 11:06 pm
    • Reply

    It sure pays to be a data junkie!!

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