21 Oct

Did someone wipe the moon landing tapes? Fascinating insight into 1960s video tech Featured

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Armstong photographs Aldrin - Armstong photographs Aldrin - NASA


On July 20 1969, Neil Armstrong descended the steps of the Lunar Lander and became the first man ever to walk on the surface of the moon. What few people realise though is that the grainy, ghostlike images we all associate with that event were not the best quality ones recorded and that the tapes of that original footage have all disappeared

The whole saga is detailed at length in NASA's report on the subject, 'The Apollo 11 Telemetry Data Recordings: A Final Report', though even it acknowledges that its conclusions are only probable and not necessarily the end of the matter.

But first, we have to rewind over forty years to when humanity stood on the brink of something really rather extraordinary and NASA was on the verge of sending three men to the moon.

Ever since the inception of the Mercury programme, the Agency had been keenly aware of the importance of television in selling its story to the public and keeping its budget, and so there were detailed plans for live televised pictures from the landing. However, there wasn't exactly a lot of bandwidth for them. Voice, telemetry, biomedical data, and television all had to share the same transmission link from an antenna atop the Lunar Module, and television only got allocated 500kHz of the spectrum. Seeing that the commercial television of the time relied on having 4.5MHz at its disposal, there was therefore a bit of a problem.

The solution was to use a special camera mounted inside the door of the module developed by Baltimore's Westinghouse Electric Corporation which used a non­-standard scan format of 10 frames per second and a 320 line resolution, compared with the (then) US television standard of 30 frames per second and 525 lines. And, because commercial television didn't have a hope of being able to transmit that signal, RCA was also hired in turn to build a scan converter, which was then installed in the three tracking stations around the world that were scheduled to accept the live feed, Goldstone in California, Honeysuckle Creek and Parkes in Australia (the latter being where the events of the movie The Dish are played out).

The plan was to convert the signal on site using the RCA box before it was then sent to Mission Control in Houston via a mix of microwave links, communications satellites, and analogue phone landlines depending on exactly where in the world the tracking station was. Meanwhile engineers at the tracking stations would tape the original telemetry, including the video signal, onto one-inch magnetic tapes for backup.

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  • Well I won't speak to the where are the tapes but I will admit to the
    fact that back in that time frame I was hovering around those circles.
    Attending school and working on some of the instrumentation that
    was used on two different projects. One was the Moon lander. The
    piece I worked on is best described as the Moon Lander "Compass".
    That Compass was used elsewhere lets, call it a Military application.
    I was a kid student at the time building test fixtures. I wasn't
    smart enough to do the testing.

    I've mentioned this in another story here. The magnetic tape back
    then suffered from three significant degradation factors. The tape
    was supplied by 3M, no surprise there. It was very much like the
    venerable old 3M BlackWatch tape of today. This tape stored for
    long periods of time suffers from what is called print through.
    Basically a self erasure process. Second, incompatibilities of
    one head to another. The term is called "Gap Scatter" or tilt.
    Third is oxide flaking. There used to be technicians who would
    go through tape libraries and simply wind reel after reel from
    one end to the other and back again. That would decrease the
    print through effect. There were devices that could have been
    used to "clean" the tape of flaking oxide. I have no idea if
    the NASA tapes were ever cleaned or even wound and re-wound.

    I think that even if they found some of the lost tapes mentioned
    here the possibility to read them is gonna be difficult.

    Will the tapes ever be found? Can the American Government organize
    itself? Pretty remote.

    FWIW. 99% of the folks at NASA, at least at that time, had mind
    numbing boring jobs. I was a little part of that. Use the kid
    student for the most mind numbing boring job(s).

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  • The idea of losing the one proof of moon landing in some shady, unattended warehouse sounds a little bit too much convenient to me. I would be very keen to hear what proper analysis of the original shots would tell us.

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  • I hit send before finishing my previous comment about a local backup to a machine orbiting the moon on a satellite. My point being that if the video transmission to Earth failed or the tapes on Earth were lost then there would still be a copy on the machine in the satellite that could send the footage back whenever it received the command from Earth.

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  • Back in the early 80's I was an assistant film editor on commercials in England. One of them involved me getting footage of Apollo 11 from Nasa. This was sent direct from Huston to London as 16mm Ektachrome. To my amazement on opening the can, I found that this was the original footage as shot by Collins of the Lunar Module hurtling towards the moon, not a copy. To my further horror, by mistake I put a scratch down one side of the original film. And for several years after,[until it was presumably digitally cleaned off] whenever that shot was shown on TV, there was my scratch running down the side of the shot. the fact NASA sent original film to London helps the William Kenney theory of general Nasa incompetence...

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  • Wow!

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  • @George Hojgr - I would hardly go so far as calling it the 'one proof'. Of all the evidence of our having visited the moon, of which there is plenty, the videotapes would be the least useful as 'proof' and the first that any conspiracist would dismiss.

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  • What I find interesting, is the reference to one inch videotape being used, because if that is true, who made the recorder? In 1969, as far as I am aware, there was no US made one inch recorder available. Ampex had the VR 660, but it was a rather bulky helical scan device using two inch tape.

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  • It appears 1" tape recorders were available at the time of the moon landing. Ampex brought out the VR 5000 Type A videotape recorder in 1965.
    See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1_inch_type_A_videotape for more information

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  • Yes, I had discounted those early Ampex units as they could not be used for broadcasting the signals, they were not equipped for time base correction and therefore could not be synchronised to broadcast systems. The 2" VR660 (and its companion the VR650 for the 625 line world) could be synchronised. Also, the early Ampex 1" units had appalling quality.


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Andy Stout, European Editor

Andy is European Editor of RedShark. He has spent nearly two decades writing about all aspects of the broadcast and film industries for a variety of high-profile industry publications on both sides of the Atlantic. During that time the industry has moved from 4:3 SD to 16:9 SD to HD and now on to 4K. He's getting kind of curious to see where it goes next.

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