NASA’s next mission: Find the missing moonwalk video

High-quality Apollo 11 recordings vanish

NASA officials authorized a formal search last week for missing original tape recordings of the first lunar landing, which were last accounted for in 1985. When officials tried to find them in 2004, they were gone.

The only video recordings of the Apollo 11 mission currently known are lower-resolution TV transmissions that the public saw in July 1969. The original magnetic tapes that are missing contain superior TV signals that were transmitted to observatories in California and Australia. The rest of the world witnessed degraded images as a consequence of converting the astronauts’ camera signals to commercial TV broadcast standards.

The higher-quality recordings are thought to be among a misplaced shipment of 13,000 14-track tapes. Officials last documented those tapes at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in 1985.

In January 2004, a team of NASA engineers, former Apollo 11 personnel and scientists from one of the Australian observatories began looking for the original 14-track tapes. They wanted to use digital technology to extract the data, which includes TV video, voice communications, biomedical data and signal-strength tracking data, to create a DVD containing a brighter, more detailed picture of the event.

The tapes, which are on reels that measure 14 inches in diameter, are believed to be among a shipment of 2,612 boxes that contain various Apollo-related recordings, said Richard Nafzger, a senior engineer at Goddard.

Nafzger said he is confident the team will find the tapes. “It’s a paperwork trail that we have to track down,” he said. “NASA was very good at documenting everything, and we expect to find paperwork that will lead us in the right direction. I would hope in six months we’ll know where they are or will be very close.”

The National Archives and Records Administration had the boxes of tapes in a temporary facility for some time, but NASA officials never made a final decision to formally transfer them to NARA, said Les Waffen, head of the National Archives Motion Picture, Sound and Video unit.

“We gave them a place to store it for a number of years,” Waffen said. “They decided it was agency material and took it back. By 1985, almost all of the boxes had been recalled by Goddard. That’s where the trail ends — Goddard.”

NASA was responsible for determining whether the tapes should be designated as permanent federal records and preserved and managed under federal guidelines, said Susan Cummings, deputy director of the Office of Modern Records Programs at NARA.

Waffen said NASA housed the material at NARA’s Washington National Records Center in Suitland, Md., but never submitted adequate documentation. “They didn’t take the time to list the contents of each of the boxes,” he said.

Patti Stockman, a records officer at NASA, said the space agency regarded the Apollo tapes as federal records but never labeled them as permanent or temporary. “They should have been treated as permanent, as the law requires,” she said. “Why Goddard would retrieve them is totally unclear at this point.”

NASA experiences every records manager’s fear

NASA’s loss of high-quality video footage of the first moon landing is an experience that could also happen to other agencies, information management experts say.

“When we have events that we can identify at the time as historic and are going to have long-term repercussions for not only the country but the culture of the world, even if everyone saw it on TV, we have to try to anticipate what records need to be preserved to accurately convey what happened at this event,” said Jeanne Young, a private consultant and former archivist at the Federal Reserve Board.

People might have trouble predicting which materials will be considered historic 40 years from now, but no one could doubt the historical value of the moon recordings, Young said.

“An incident like this, where human beings are stepping onto an extraterrestrial body, which has never happened in the history of the world, has to be a significant event,” she said.

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