6.10 How could NASA conveniently “lose” the tapes of the first Moon landing?

IN A NUTSHELL: They didn’t: they lost the direct, raw recording of the first landing, which would have offered a higher image quality than the recordings made from the live TV transmission, was degraded considerably by the electronic conversion required to adapt the signal from the Moon to the standards used by terrestrial television. The lower-quality converted recordings have not been lost. The loss of the raw recording is due to the fact that it was made in a special video format on expensive telemetry tapes, which were later deleted for reuse because it was believed at the time (before the advent of digital image processing and restoration techniques) that no better conversion was possible. The lost tapes did not contain extra footage or different views.

THE DETAILS: As described in the technical primer at the beginning of this book, achieving a fuzzy, black-and-white live broadcast from the Moon for the first landing required a substantial technological effort. At the time, television was fully analog and could not benefit from pristine digital transmission and processing. Due to technical constraints, a non-standard TV camera and signal had to be used on the Moon and the pictures had to be converted on Earth, on the fly, for worldwide live broadcast. This caused considerable loss of quality.

NASA recorded this converted television signal on standard videotape reels of the best quality available at the time. These tapes have not been lost (Figure 6-22).

Figure 6-22. One of the converted videotape reels of the Apollo 11 flight. Credit: DC Video.

The non-standard direct signal from the Moon could not be recorded with ordinary video recording equipment, so NASA stored it on a track of the telemetry tapes of the flight. However, these tapes were labeled as ordinary mission telemetry and were placed in storage with all the other technical records at the end of each mission. Several years after the end of the Apollo project, the stored telemetry was deemed of no further interest and its expensive tapes were sent to be wiped for reuse. The best-quality recordings of the Apollo 11 lunar excursion were thus deleted unintentionally.

These are the so-called “lost tapes”: they included no extra footage or different shots compared to the recordings that we've seen for over forty years. However, they would have offered a far better view, in terms of detail and clarity, of that unique moment of history (Figure 6-23).

Figure 6-23. Neil Armstrong in the live TV signal as broadcast from Houston (left) compared with the original signal received from the Moon at Goldstone (right, NASA image S69-42583) as recorded by taking a Polaroid photograph of the TV screen of the receiver on Earth.

It should be noted that at the time it was widely believed that nothing better could be extracted from the master tapes. The digital image processing that we now take for granted was still in its infancy, the existing footage was considered good enough, and it was assumed that the master tapes would be preserved anyway.

All is not lost, however. There are photographs and film recordings of parts of the direct, unprocessed transmission from the Moon, taken by Bill Wood and Ed von Renouard, who worked at the receiving stations in the United States and Australia, which offer tantalizing glimpses of what could have been preserved, including the only existing recording (made by von Renouard on a Super 8 movie camera) of the jettison of the astronauts' backpacks after they reentered the Lunar Module. Other unofficial copies of the raw transmission might still surface from various sources.

In 2009, NASA published a detailed report on the extensive international search for the missing master tapes* and hired Lowry Digital, a film restoration company, to enhance the best available converted recordings with assistance from many of the engineers who had worked on the original transmission. The restored Apollo 11 moonwalk is now available commercially.