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.

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Magnetic tape

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 Her attempt at restoration in the late 1980s was sidelined by technical difficulties in maintaining and operating the outdated hardware.
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1,478 magnetic tapes

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.
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Ampex FR-900 tape drives

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.
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Dozens of canisters

Dozens of canisters are stacked up on the floor of a defunct McDonald's at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif.
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Keith Cowing

Cowing reviews pieces of scanned tape at the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project at NASA Ames.
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Reconstructed

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.
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Skunkworks

A pirate flag hangs in the window of the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project, officially designating it a "skunkworks" unit.
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Each tape is stored

Each tape contains just one high-res and one low-res image, and the reel, weighing more than 8 pounds, is wrapped in plastic and stored in a protective canister to shield the magnetic data.
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Stacks inside

Stacks of data reels containing images of the lunar surface sit on the floor of the LOIRP.
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Ampex FR-900 tape drives

One of the super-rare Ampex FR-900 tape drives needed to read the magnetic tape data containing the images of the moon.
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Photo by: James Martin/CNET / Caption by:

Historical tapes

Historical tapes are stacked along a deep fryer.
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In the kitchen in the corner

In the corner of the kitchen, for now, the tapes wait their turn to be opened and run through the Ampex FR-900 tape drives and digitized.
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McDonalds

Much of the original McDonald's interior remains. Chairs are stacked along the walls, and the brown tile floor is buckling and cracked as the ground beneath settles.
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Titan I ICBM

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.
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Photo by: James Martin/CNET / Caption by:
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