Mysteries solved, secrets revealed, and questions finally answered.
- Air & Space magazine, September 2010
U.S. Air Force photo
(Page 3 of 4)
One Giant Oops for Mankind
In 1999, John Sarkissian, a scientist at the Parkes Radio Observatory in Australia, began hunting for original Apollo 11 recordings of the TV signal beamed from the moon during Neil Armstrong’s historic “step” on July 20, 1969. Sarkissian, who worked as a technical advisor on The Dish, a movie about Parkes’ role in the mission, knew that the ghostly black-and-white film seen by hundreds of millions on that momentous day wasn’t what was transmitted from the moon. Only a handful of people at Parkes and two other tracking stations, Goldstone in California and Honeysuckle Creek in Australia, saw that. The rest of us saw a degraded picture that had been converted to a format commonly used by broadcasters of the day.
So what happened to the original, clear TV pictures? They were recorded on one-inch magnetic tapes and sent to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. But after more than a decade of searching by Sarkissian, Richard Nafzger of Goddard, and half a dozen others at various U.S. and Australian institutions, nobody has been able to put their hands on the tapes.
The most likely conclusion, NASA determined last July, is that it recorded over them in 1981, when a shortage of one-inch magnetic tapes led the space agency to reuse old ones in storage.
More than once, the search team thought they had located dubs of the original TV recordings. In one case, it was a tape stored for 36 years in the garage of a retired employee of the Australian Honeysuckle tracking station. All that time he had thought it was the Apollo 11 moonwalk, but it turned out to be simulation data from 1967.
There are no villains in this story. What looks in hindsight like a colossal blunder has a simple human explanation: No one in the 1970s, when the tapes were being stored at various archives, flagged them as being especially valuable. After all, the viewing public had seen the broadcast signals as the government had planned, and there was no digital technology yet to convert the original telemetry tapes to usable pictures. Still, NASA last year arranged for the broadcast-quality tapes to be digitally enhanced to improve the scenes we saw all those years ago. The space agency released the tapes as the nation marked the 40th anniversary of the moonwalk.