6.10 How could NASA conveniently “lose” the tapes of the first Moon landing?

IN A NUTSHELL: They lost the raw tapes, but copies of all footage still exist. Specifically, NASA lost the direct TV recording of the first landing, which was made using a nonstandard format and was thought to be useless once converted to normal TV in the best possible way. The lower-quality converted recordings have not been lost. The lost tapes did not contain extra footage or different views.

THE DETAILS: As described in the technical primer at the beginning of this chapter, in the 1960s even achieving a fuzzy, black-and-white live broadcast from the Moon for the first landing required a substantial technological effort. Due to weight, power and other technical constraints, a non-standard miniaturized TV camera and a low-quality signal had to be used on the Moon, producing pictures that were less sharp than normal TV. These pictures had to be received on Earth and converted on the fly for worldwide live broadcast. This process caused considerable loss of quality.

The conversion was done in the only way available at the time: at the large radio telescopes that received the nonstandard TV signal directly from the Moon, a standard TV camera was pointed at the special monitors that were capable of displaying the pictures.

NASA recorded this converted television signal on standard videotape reels of the best quality available at the time. These tapes have not been lost (Figure 6.10-1).

Figure 6.10-1. One of the converted videotape reels of the Apollo 11 flight. Credit: DC Video.

The non-standard direct, unconverted signal from the Moon could not be recorded with ordinary video recording equipment, so NASA stored it on a track of the telemetry tapes of the flight.

However, this meant that these tapes were labeled as ordinary mission telemetry and were placed in storage with all the other technical records at the end of each mission. Several years after the end of the Apollo project, the stored telemetry was deemed of no further interest and its expensive tapes were sent to be wiped for reuse; this was standard practice at the time. The best-quality recordings of the Apollo 11 lunar excursion were thus deleted unintentionally.

These are the so-called “lost tapes”: they included no extra footage or different shots compared to the recordings that are currently available. However, they would have offered a far better view, in terms of detail and clarity, of that unique moment of history: we know because some of the engineers who worked at the receiving stations, such as Ed von Renouard and Bill Wood, took photographs and movies of the monitors that displayed the unconverted pictures (Figures 6.10-2 and 6.10-3). These unofficial recordings include the only existing footage (made by von Renouard on a Super 8 movie camera) of the jettison of the astronauts' backpacks after they reentered the Lunar Module.

Figure 6.10-2. Neil Armstrong in the live TV signal as broadcast from Houston (left) compared with the original signal received from the Moon at Goldstone (right, NASA image S69-42583) as recorded by taking a Polaroid photograph of the TV screen of the receiver on Earth. The black band is caused by the short exposure time of the camera and the slowly forming TV picture.

Figure 6.10-3. Armstrong and Aldrin at the foot of the Lunar Module ladder uncover the commemorative plaque on the spacecraft, as photographed in Houston from a standard TV monitor (left) and at the Parkes radio telescope, in Australia, from a monitor that displayed the direct, unconverted signal (right). Credit: Honeysucklecreek.net.

NASA’s handling of the original recordings seems unforgivably reckless and absurd today, but it should be noted that at the time it was widely believed that nothing better could be extracted from the master tapes. The digital image processing that we now take for granted was still in its infancy and the converted footage was considered good enough, especially compared to the quality of 1960s TV broadcasts, which was very low compared to today’s high-definition images.

In 2009, NASA published a detailed report (The Apollo 11 Telemetry Data Recordings: A Final Report) on the extensive international search for the missing master tapes and hired Lowry Digital, a film restoration company, to assemble, clean up and enhance the best available converted recordings with assistance from many of the engineers who had worked on the original transmission. The restored Apollo 11 moonwalk is now available online (Restored Apollo 11 Moonwalk Video).

Despite the restoration, the loss of the original recordings remains regrettable and is mitigated only partially by the faint hope that unofficial copies of the raw transmission might still surface from various sources.