NASA lost moon footage, but Hollywood restores it (Update)

July 16, 2009 By SETH BORENSTEIN , AP Science Writer
FILE - In this July 20, 1969 file photo, Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong walks slowly away from the lunar module to explore the surface of the moon. (AP Photo, file)

(AP) -- NASA could put a man on the moon but didn't have the sense to keep the original video of the live TV transmission.

In an embarrassing acknowledgment, the space agency said Thursday that it must have erased the Apollo 11 moon footage years ago so that it could reuse the videotape.

But now Hollywood is coming to the rescue.

The studio wizards who restored "Casablanca" are digitally sharpening and cleaning up the ghostly, grainy footage of the moon landing, making it even better than what TV viewers saw on July 20, 1969. They are doing it by working from four copies that NASA scrounged from around the world.

"There's nothing being created; there's nothing being manufactured," said NASA senior engineer Dick Nafzger, who is in charge of the project. "You can now see the detail that's coming out."

The first batch of restored footage was released just in time for the 40th anniversary of the "one giant leap for mankind," and some of the details seem new because of their sharpness. Originally, astronaut Neil Armstrong's face visor was too fuzzy to be seen clearly. The upgraded video of Earth's first moonwalker shows the visor and a reflection in it.

The $230,000 refurbishing effort is only three weeks into a monthslong project, and only 40 percent of the work has been done. But it does show improvements in four snippets: Armstrong walking down the ladder; Buzz Aldrin following him; the two astronauts reading a plaque they left on the moon; and the planting of the flag on the lunar surface.

Nafzger said a huge search that began three years ago for the old moon tapes led to the "inescapable conclusion" that 45 tapes of Apollo 11 video were erased and reused. His report on that will come out in a few weeks.

The original videos beamed to Earth were stored on giant reels of tape that each contained 15 minutes of video, along with other data from the moon. In the 1970s and '80s, NASA had a shortage of the tapes, so it erased about 200,000 of them and reused them.

How did NASA end up looking like a bumbling husband taping over his wedding video with the Super Bowl?

Nafzger, who was in charge of the live TV recordings back in the Apollo years, said they were mostly thought of as data tapes. It wasn't his job to preserve history, he said, just to make sure the footage worked. In retrospect, he said he wished NASA hadn't reused the tapes.

Outside historians were aghast.

"It's surprising to me that NASA didn't have the common sense to save perhaps the most important historical footage of the 20th century," said Rice University historian and author Douglas Brinkley. He noted that NASA saved all sorts of data and artifacts from Apollo 11, and it is "mind-boggling that the tapes just disappeared."

The remastered copies may look good, but "when dealing with historical film footage, you always want the original to study," Brinkley said.

Smithsonian Institution space curator Roger Launius, a former NASA chief historian, said the loss of the original video "doesn't surprise me that much."

"It was a mistake, no doubt about that," Launius said. "This is a problem inside the entire federal government. ... They don't think that preservation is all that important."

Launius said federal warehouses where historical artifacts are saved are "kind of like the last scene of `Raiders of the Lost Ark.' It just goes away in this place with other big boxes."

The company that restored all the Indiana Jones movies, including "Raiders," is the one bailing out NASA.

Lowry Digital of Burbank, Calif., noted that "Casablanca" had a pixel count 10 times higher than the moon video, meaning the Apollo 11 footage was fuzzier than that vintage movie and more of a challenge in one sense.

Of all the video the company has dealt with, "this is by far and away the lowest quality," said Lowry president Mike Inchalik.

Nafzger praised Lowry for restoring "crispness" to the Apollo video. Historian Launius wasn't as blown away.

"It's certainly a little better than the original," Launius said. "It's not a lot better."

The Apollo 11 video remains in black and white. Inchalik said he would never consider colorizing it, as has been done to black-and-white classic films. And the moon is mostly gray anyway.

The restoration used four video sources: CBS News originals; kinescopes from the National Archives; a video from Australia that received the transmission of the original moon video; and camera shots of a TV monitor.

Both Nafzger and Inchalik acknowledged that digitally remastering the video could further encourage conspiracy theorists who believe NASA faked the entire moon landing on a Hollywood set. But they said they enhanced the video as conservatively as possible.

Besides, Inchalik said that if there had been a conspiracy to fake a moon landing, NASA surely would have created higher-quality film.

Back in 1969, nearly 40 percent of the picture quality was lost converting from one video format used on the moon - called slow scan - to something that could be played on TVs on Earth, Nafzger said.

NASA did not lose other Apollo missions' videos because they weren't stored on the type of tape that needed to be reused, Nafzger said.

As part of the moon landing's 40th anniversary, the space agency has been trotting out archival material. NASA has a Web site with audio from private conversations in the lunar module and command capsule. The agency is also webcasting radio from Apollo 11 as if the mission were taking place today.

The video restoration project did not involve improving the sound. Inchalik said he listened to Armstrong's famous first words from the surface of the moon, trying to hear if he said "one small step for man" or "one small step for A man," but couldn't tell.

Through a letter read at a news conference Thursday, Armstrong had the last word about the video from the moon: "I was just amazed that there was any picture at all."


On the Net:

NASA restored video:

NASA audio from the lunar module and command capsule:

NASA's replay of the Apollo radio in real-time minus 40 years:

©2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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5 / 5 (1) Jul 16, 2009
"...In the 1970s and 1980s, NASA had a shortage of the tapes and erased about 200,000 of those tapes and reused them."... after they transferred the pictures to film..?
not rated yet Jul 16, 2009
"...In the 1970s and 1980s, NASA had a shortage of the tapes and erased about 200,000 of those tapes and reused them."... after they transferred the pictures to film..?

Since the article says it was from a television video copy, I assume they got it from a TV Studio that had rebroadcast the live footage.
3 / 5 (6) Jul 16, 2009
And cue the hoax-theorists wtth another wave of miss-informed consiracy claims...
4 / 5 (3) Jul 16, 2009
"Besides, Inchalik said that if there had been a conspiracy to fake a moon landing, NASA surely would have created higher-quality film. "

no thats bs, they would make it as shi**y as possible to where it was believable to try to ensure something like this restoration couldnt occur in the future and prove it a hoax.....
i do not personally think its any hoax, but, conspiracy theorists are definitely gonna go nuts over it....

3.8 / 5 (4) Jul 17, 2009
Unfortunately, this article is representing a complicated situation poorly, and possibly attempting to cover up something, such as theft caused by poor security.

In my NASA experience such tapes were in locked rooms that were almost completely unused. I only saw the door open to an archive open once in several years. The person who got access was not-very-senior engineer. He told me (20 years ago) that it was a now-or-never effort, because the tapes were falling apart. (Not video tapes, computer tapes.) If he had been a thief, he could have stolen any amount of those tapes he wanted.

The Smithsonian curator Launius, draws a cute parallel to "Raiders of the Lost Ark", but this situation of having the major parts of collections in storage -- some boxes never even opened -- is very common in museums. Pointing the finger vaguely at government and saying "they don't think preservation is that important" would be like pointing at me, and saying Doc, why are you storing all those 100 year old family negatives outside a fireproof safe? Answer? Time, money, focus.
3.7 / 5 (3) Jul 17, 2009
hmm my post got deleted...not cool Phys not cool. Is phys in cohots with NASA? Im not a conspracy loon by any means... "A funny thing happened on the way to the Moon" actually includes footage sent by NASA.
3 / 5 (4) Jul 17, 2009
@Doc ....agreed. (with most)

However, one thing puzzles me still... why only 20 still shots were taken of all the Apollo missions?

As an amateur astronomer in my youth... one question kept popping up every time we joked about looking for the US flag on the moon... "Why did they not take a telescope?" - 500kg of moon rover was fine but 1KG of telescope was too much?

Not to even mention the lighting shadow paths crossing. And this is why I must see the restored footage (restored from a poor copy taken from 10' away on a 20 year old projection screen)
4.5 / 5 (2) Jul 17, 2009
@iknow, Where did you find that "only 20 still shots were taken of all the Apollo missions"? I seen literally hundreds of stills from Apollo 11,12,14,15,16 & 17. Try Google for archival photos. IIRC, a modified Maksutov telescope was flown (on Apollo 16, I think) that took UV images of the Large and Small Magellanic galaxies as well as several other objects (I remember seeing some of the pics in Sky & Telescope at the time). So at least one telescope was used by the astronauts on the moon, and the UV band was chosen for imaging because Earth's atmosphere blocks the deep UV portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. I'm not sure what your last comment is referring to, so I'll await clarification.
3 / 5 (6) Jul 17, 2009
On Apollo 11 alone the 70 mm cameras took 1407 images, 339 of which were taken on the lunar surface.

17 pairs of pictures were taken with a 35 mm stereoscopic camera. Numerous photos were also taken with a 16 mm data acquisition camera.
1 / 5 (1) Jul 18, 2009
iknow, this is just a wild, wild guess, but here goes. I had experience on a certain high profile project where the reporter confused aspects of our (public) project with the secret hanger, over the fence, next door. The magazine reporter also confused us with completely different project a couple floors up.

Here's my guess: Hassleblad cameras, of the type that were taken to the moon, use film that comes in rolls. The off-the-shelf version of those cameras take 12, and (I think) 20 shots. I bet somebody messed up big, and assumed the astronauts were using standard cameras.
4.5 / 5 (2) Jul 18, 2009
"making it even better than what TV viewers saw on July 20, 1969."

What kind of writing is that? The footage seen in 1969 was TERRIBLE. 'Even better than'??? Was this article a high-school assignment?

This Walter Cronkite quote I found today seems highly apropos:

"What do I regret? Well, I regret that in our attempt to establish some standards, we didn't make them stick. We couldn't find a way to pass them on to another generation."
5 / 5 (1) Jul 19, 2009
And cue the hoax-theorists wtth another wave of miss-informed consiracy claims...

I'm no conspiracy guy but does anyone find it odd that one the most important events of mankind would be so carelessly dealt with in regards to erasing the video???

It just adds fuel to the fire of speculation.
4.7 / 5 (3) Jul 28, 2009
To the moon landing skeptics, there are two pieces of evidence that make your points invalid.

1) There are high quality raw data images of the landing site, as taken by satellite available to the public.

2) the Apollo missions left a set of high powered reflectors on the moon's surface so that we can take accurate measurements of distance between us and the moon. These reflectors are used almost daily to refine our predictions involving the moon's effects on the earth etc.

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