In 1966 and 67, NASA launched five probes to image the surface of the moon from orbit, eventually returning over two thousand high-resolution images of future Apollo landing sites and selenogical features to researchers on Earth. After taking its pictures of the moon, developing the film in orbit, and scanning the print with an electron gun and photomultiplier tube, the images were sent to Earth stations and recorded onto magnetic tape with a hugely expensive tape recorder, a state-of-the-art storage system costing $300,000. Researchers poured over these images of another world, made a few 35mm prints and sent the magnetic tapes off to the NASA archives.
Under the care of [Nancy Evans], the tapes sat in a warehouse eventually moving to an abandoned McDonalds at Ames Research Center. In 2005, retired and not bound by NASA, [Nancy] made a plea to preserve this milestone of human spaceflight wasting away under the golden arches which was heard by [Dennis Wingo]. [Wingo] and admin of the NASA Watch website admin [Keith Cowling] drove out to [Nancy]’s house with a truck, picked up the Ampex FR-900 tape drives she had saved in her garage from the trash heap at Eglin Air Force Base and headed to the cache of Lunar Orbiter tapes at Ames.
None of these drives worked, of course. Forty years will do a lot to expensive precision equipment. Luckily, one of the employees at Ames tasked with fixing video equipment had worked on the ancient Ampex drives before. Taking the unbroken parts of these machines and turning them into a single working unit didn’t come easily; again, parts needed to be scavenged from the Ames boneyard.
All this work was worth it for [Cowling], [Wingo], and [Evans] when the first image – an Earthrise picture seen above (sans the obvious Photoshoppery) – appeared on their monitor. Later, an amazing oblique shot of Copernicus crater was recovered.
In the years since these first images from the LOIRP project were released, many more images have been made available. These images are actually comparable to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, launched in 2012. Not bad for 45-year-old hardware that has since crashed into the moon.
As for what the future holds for the still-magnetized images from the Lunar Orbiter program, [Dennis Wingo] says they’re considering putting up a Kickstarter to close the gap between the necessary funding and what NASA provides. We’ll be sure to post a link when that happens.
34 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: Recovering Lost Moon Images By Dumpster Diving”
I just love this kind of story!
What most amazes me is the fact that they had to develop the film, I never thought about it like that.
It’s great to hear that dedicated hackers are recovering the hard won gems from the golden age of space exploration. To allow these images to fade away would be to say that the efforts of those who worked to hard to obtain them in the first place were for naught.
When the government can’t or won’t do the job, turn it over to the hackers. Well done, and keep up the good work!
Kudos to Dennis Wingo and the rest of the hacker team… It warms my heart to see people saving these precious gems for the benefit of the entire human race in the future…. These are as important historical pieces as anything else we have in museums. These are just made of materials from another era… !
I wonder why they developed the film in orbit. Was it in case they never made it back?
I presume the probe was in lunar orbit. So no, the probe was never coming back to Earth. The film had to be developed and scanned there, with the data radioed back.
I’m wondering how it processed the film in microgravity. Certainly very different to home and commercial processing here on the ground…
That’s a good question; and the film geek in me has to think about it really hard to come up with even a reasonable answer.
The film was being spooled after the camera, so might as well spool it onto a developing spool; one that has space between the film so developer and the like can hit every spot. But then what? Can’t drop it into a tank and let gravity work. Pumps seem like they would take up too much space; one to pump developer in and out, then a stop, then wash . . . well, maybe not. If the film was never coming back, why even stop the developer. Just pump developer over the film then run it through the scanner, and know that since it isn’t coming back it can over-develop all it likes.
Unless the electron gun affects the developing process. Might get one image off the film and destroy the image in the process that way.
Damn, now I want to know how NASA did it!
My guess is that they had Polaroid design the system for them, using the gel based system from the old peel apart film.
I read something more detailed a while back that detailed the chalenges but here is basic breakdown:
From the link provided by dingolishious:
Upon completion of a photographic sequence, a processor dryer, on command, processed the film from the storage looper at a rate of 6.09 cm (2.4 in.) per minute. Processing was accomplished by pressing the film into contact with Kodak dry Bimat transfer film, type SO-111. Kodak Bimat film consists of a normal film base coated with a gelatin layer presoaked with a special monobath processing solution. The solution both developed and fixed the photographic image during the 3.4 minutes the exposed film and Bimat film were in contact on the processing drum. Processing temperature was closely controlled at 29.5º C.
The exposed film and Bimat film were then separated, the Bimat film going to a takeup spool and the developed film to a dryer drum. The film was in contact with the dryer drum for 11.5 minutes at a temperature of 35º C. Moisture driven from the film by the heat of the dryer drum was absorbed by special chemical salts in pads around the dryer; thus a controlled humidity environment was maintained in the photographic subsystem. After leaving the dryer, the film was transported through the readout storage looper and readout mechanism and stored on a takeup spool. The film was then ready for readout.
Maybe something to do with the emulsion…. I’m thinking it had to be developed instantly to retain anything ?
The film was never coming back. They developed it so they could scan it.
I wish I was in America right now, I would go and volunteer to help this project.
It’s a sad state of affairs when NASA has to use Kickstarter to fund a historical restoration project, and the military gets unlimited funding to kill people on the other side of the planet over cheap oil.
NASA gets 0.5c of every tax dollar. NASA’s budget for its entire existence since 1958 has totaled the same as what america spends on the military in one year.
I share your sentiments as far as the pathetic state of of NASA these days. Here’s a novel idea: Maybe NASA should be funded and directed to explore and put human boots on heavenly bodies, as opposed to this:
The problem here is politicians. When they offer people free stuff, they effectively buy their votes. That’s why we recently crossed the point where more than 50% of all Americans are on some kind of public assistance. There are few, if any, votes to be gleaned by directing funds toward an organization like NASA, so this is what you get.
One other thing… I’m not sure where you got the idea that that “killing people on the other side of the planet” results in “cheap oil.” Apparently you haven’t been to a gas station for a while. To the extent that the price of fuel has gone down at all, it’s only because of the drop in demand due to the utter collapse of the economy.
I don’t know why we are still in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it obviously has nothing to do with “cheap oil.”
I cynically think the more correct phrase is “Profitable gas prices”. Cheeper might be right as compared to EU.
But yeh, I see the achievements of the space program in developing technology and our knowledge in so many areas as almost comparable to art and music as a defining human achievement even if it was for skewed reasons.
I think the meaning there was “cheap and plentiful for the oil company” not “cheap for the consumer”.
All Americans receive some assistance from the Government.
If they offered you an Arduino, would you take it? Of course you would, but you’d file that under ‘education’, not ‘welfare’.
We’re all socialists, we just like to argue pointlessly over where the line is.
Never, ever believe any statistics about the number of people on government assistance unless it gives a detailed breakdown of what kind of assistance. I’ve seen graphs that claimed huge percentages where the fine print explained that it counted tax deductions for dependents as government assistance.
I think imroy264 is right, the reason it was done in space is that the probe wasn’t coming back. Additionally, maybe they feared the reentry and ionizing radiation around the space capsule may damage the devices/pictures so that’s why they beamed them too. We’ve gotta remember, this is 1960’s not our smartphone point and clicky’s of today!
Maybe it was developed like a Polaroid, originally- Picture taken, and all the chemicals were stored, and mechanically activated and self completing.
I’d be willing to guess that the reason a film camera was used and scanned was either a function of limited electronic resolution on a camera, or maybe too low of a shutter speed for the resolution wanted/needed.
“the tapes sat in a warehouse eventually moving to an abandoned McDonalds”
I almost flipped my desk over at this point.
It must be hard for engineers to agonize for years over a carefully designed program only to have their efforts forgotten.
Though it is worth noting that they mission was competed in that they found a landing spot.
Yeah, government programs very frequently do stuff like this because the budget is set up to accomplish specific goals, and there really isn’t any money allocated beforehand to going over everything they do after the fact to guess at what would be valuable for future generations. Once the project is over the engineers, scientists, and anyone else who really gives a shit moves on to something else and it’s the bean counters and just-get-it-done blue collar workers who see to packing everything away.
I helped a tiny bit on this one (Hi Creon!) and yeah, I was super sad when I was told the story.
NASA also has several tons of moonrocks in storage that nobody ever looked at I hear, it’s weird, all that effort and then once it’s in the bag they stop caring.
And yet they chase after anyone with unauthorized specimens.
How about the original SSTV recordings of the moon landing which is feared to have been overwritten?
Not so weird.
You save some for control samples, for tests no-one has developed yet and so on.
Or maybe the long-term goal is to wait until they’re considered antiques and then cash in.
Unless the scientists were put in a blender, I suspect they pored over the results, rather than pouring over them.
These images are awesome, it’d be a sad thing to see these tapes go to waste. I’d like to request Hackaday editors to please update if they do go to kickstarter, I’d pledge some of my own money just for the personal satisfaction of helping to retrieve, document, and digitally store on the cloud these images. I’m sure server hardware is very much the least of their concerns as the man hours alone of retrieving the images would be costly indeed.
A similar project is being done in Russia with old video transmissions from Soviet lunar probes.
Poke around the web and you can find new high resolution lunar images created from the original Lunokhod rover transmissions. The Soviets never built a system capable of displaying the full quality of the data the Lunokhods transmitted.
I suspect the Lunar Orbiter film developing system was based on the system used in the Corona spy satellites, first launched in June, 1959 and running through 144 of them until the last in May, 1972.
Corona dropped the developed film back to Earth, where the capsules were snagged on the fly by airplanes.
Now I really feel old. US spy agencies were still using film in space instead of video cameras when I was a year old. :P
There’s declassified stuff that says you are in fact correct. Same goes for the Hubble.
Don Mitchell’s reconstructions of Soviet-era space data are amazing. I especially like the Venusian landscapes that have been created from raw data.
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