NASA can't find valuable '69 moonwalk video

February 5, 2007

It's hard to imagine a more valuable video recording. As Neil Armstrong prepared to take his "one small step" onto the moon in July 1969, a video camera mounted on the spacecraft recorded the first human contact with the lunar surface.

The fuzzy images seen live by millions of viewers were crude compared to the much higher-resolution images the Apollo 11 camera actually recorded. For some reason, however, the rarely seen original, high-quality lunar tapes were stored and forgotten.

Now in the HDTV era, NASA is eager to show the historic recordings to a generation that missed the excitement of the original moon landing, but the tapes are nowhere to be found.

What started as an informal search, reported the "Washington Post" last week, soon became a fruitless official hunt through archives, record centers and storage rooms throughout NASA facilities. Although the search continues, NASA officials now acknowledge that the videos may be lost forever.

Back in the pre-digital age of 1969, the cumbersome, highly specialized video format used by NASA appeared to have limited value. Apollo 11 was the only flight to use the unusual video system. The video signal was transmitted from the moon to ground sites in Australia and the Mojave Desert in California, where technicians reformatted the video for broadcast and transmitted it long-distance over analog lines to Houston. Much of the video quality was lost during that process.

The original video from the moon, however, was in an unconventional "slow-scan" format, necessary because almost all of the broadcast bandwidth was needed to send flight data to Earth. The format scanned only 30 percent of the normal frames per second, and it was done at a much lower than normal radio frequency.

Ironically, though the high-resolution tapes are missing, one of the few 7ft analog machines that could play the Apollo video was recently found at the Goddard Space Flight Center, where most Apollo data had been processed.

Last summer, the space agency put Goddard's deputy director, Dolly Perkins, in charge of the search. She is overseeing the hunt for the tapes.

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