Four decades later, recovering lunar images (photos)
A few passionate space enthusiasts have teamed up with NASA to restore and archive detailed images of the moon's surface taken in the late 1960s by an unmanned lunar orbiter.
Dennis Wingo and Keith Cowing
Between 1966 and 1967, the U.S. launched a series of five unmanned Lunar Orbiter missions that photographed and mapped 99 percent of the lunar surface. The spacecraft, equipped with a dual-lens Kodak camera, captured both a 610mm high-resolution image and a 80mm wide-angle low-resolution image and placed the two exposures on a single roll of 70mm film.
In orbit, the onboard system developed the film, scanned the images into a series of strips, and the analog data was then transmitted to NASA back on Earth where it was written to magnetic tape, stored away, and nearly forgotten.
Around 2005, space entrepreneur Dennis Wingo and Keith Cowing of NASA Watch learned of prior attempts at restoring the images.
With a renewed interest from NASA in moon exploration and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter set to go to the moon in 2009, Wingo and Cowing became more and more motivated to work toward restoring the tapes.
Eventually, in mid-2008, with volunteer help and funding from NASA and other outside grants, the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project (LOIRP) moved the 1,478 tape cartridges and the drives into an abandoned McDonald's which is (still) slated for demolition at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif.
The magnetic tapes were stored in Maryland for years following the Lunar Orbiter missions of 1966 and 1967, and then moved to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory later.
Nearly forgotten, the tapes were watched over by JPL employee Nancy Evans, who years later tracked down the rare Ampex FR-900 tape drives needed to read the magnetic tapes. Her attempt at restoration in the late 1980s was sidelined by technical difficulties in maintaining and operating the outdated hardware.
There are 1,478 magnetic tapes from the five Lunar Orbiter missions. Each tape contains one high-resolution and one low-resolution camera exposure written simultaneously into the data. A full tape contains around 39GB of data for the two photographs, a 34GB full-resolution raw image, and the smaller 10GB low-res image.
The Ampex FR-900 tape drives were rare even in the 1960s and then cost $300,000.
Evans eventually was able to find four of these rare Ampex FR-900 tape drives, but after her project stalled, they were stored away to collect dust at her California ranch before Wingo and Cowing got word of their existence via a Usenet group.
This reconstructed image shows how the data was laid out on the magnetic tapes. The strips of data were converted to an analog signal, then to digital, and finally deciphered into a viewable image before being pieced together to form the entire exposure.
A Titan I ICBM, once used to deliver thermonuclear warheads in the 1950s and '60s is parked alongside the McDonald's turned LOIRP. It's another relic of the early days of the space program waiting to be restored.