05 May 2018

Did someone wipe the moon landing tapes?

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Armstong photographs Aldrin - Armstong photographs Aldrin - NASA


Houston, we have a problem

Only a handful of engineers ever saw that original, unconverted signal on specially adapted monitors. All the footage the rest of the world saw, and will ever see, of that moon landing was recorded from the seriously downgraded broadcast signal. Why?

Each of the three stations used 15 one-inch tape reels to record the actual event, and the engineers dutifully boxed the 45 back-up tapes up and shipped them from their various locations to the Goddard Space Flight Centre in the US. From there, they were sent to the Washington National Records Centre, which is where they disappeared and, despite NASA's best efforts to find them again, they remain stubbornly missing, presumed wiped to this day.

That's not to say that there hasn't been a Herculean effort to try and find them, which over the course of a decade involved hunting high and low across two continents. A retired engineer in Australia reckoned he'd taken a dupe of the actual landing tape, but after a mini saga all of its own which included locating the only machine in existence that could still play the data back, it turned out that he'd made a copy of the wrong tape and it contained just chatter between the astronauts and Houston.

Then there was a hunt through years of documentation and paperwork to try and see exactly where the missing originals had ended up. We are talking tens of thousands of tapes and even more paperwork as a dedicated team of sleuths tried to cross reference numbering systems from one government department with wholly different numbering systems from another.

The history of the hunt reads more like a satire warning of the evils of bureaucracy than anything else, but after a few more years of effort they eventually uncovered the name of the department at the Goddard Space Centre responsible for receiving the tapes (Data Services Section (Code 824.3) if you must know) and the fact that they would have been in a non-standard sized container for magnetic tapes of that period due to being on 14in reels.


Andy Stout

Andy has spent over 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 HDR. He's getting kind of curious to see where it goes next.

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