Hey NASA, Do You Want Your Stuff Back?

What would you do if you found hidden away artifacts of aerospace technology from the Apollo era?

You call NASA.

Two hulking computers — likely necessitating the use of a crane to move them — and hundreds of tape reels were discovered in the basement of a former IBM engineer by their heir and a scrap dealer cleaning out the deceased’s home. Labels are scarce, and those that are marked are mostly from the late 1960s through the mid 1970s, including data from the Pioneer 8 to 11 missions, as well as the Helios missions.

Erring on the side of caution, the heir opted to call NASA and attempt to return the tech. The story goes that the late engineer received permission to take the two units and trove of tapes home after they were slated for decommission. Considering their state of disrepair and how dated the technology is, NASA stated they do not do junk removal and recommended their destruction.

One has to guess at what was once on those mysterious tapes — now compromised by mould — but NASA’s archivist’s investigation concluded that there was little data of historical significance stored on them, so fret not.

For a more official trip through NASA’s tech — old and new, check out our tour of their Jet-Propulsion Laboratory, as well as some of their more relatable hacks.

[via Ars Technica]

57 thoughts on “Hey NASA, Do You Want Your Stuff Back?

  1. My guess is that this is the computer that put the “computers” out of business. I’d love the display racks from the photo.
    Sad part is the engineer died that brought the computer home. I would have loved to hear those stories.

    1. It indeed makes you wonder…
      “Sad part is the engineer died that brought the computer home. I would have loved to hear those stories.”

      Changes are that there simply isn’t any story and that it is just junk, old junk from a really interesting period of technological progress… but still junk. The problem is that the engineer who could tell us that “it is indeed junk” and “that he brought it home for some other reason then preserving history” is no longer there. We just never know…

      What also makes me wonder if he had a wife and if so, how did he manage to sneak this all stuff inside his home without his wife knowing it. And how did he keep it a secret (from his wife) all these years. Therefore I can only conclude that he must have been single of divorced soon afterwards she found out about the junk in the basement.

      But I’m very sure that, now NASA doesn’t want it, there are many others who would like to have this. Even non functional (when polished) it looks so cool in every home (although I think my wife has another opinion, so I have to pass).

      1. Quote: “Changes are that there simply isn’t any story and that it is just junk, old junk from a really interesting period of technological progress… but still junk.”

        Yeah, people thought that after WWII, when you could pick up various fighters and bombers for a song. I used to have a landlord who was a pilot during the war. Years later, he lamented that he hadn’t bought a few of them. He could have stored them in a barn. Now they’d be worth millions.

        There’s a cycle:

        1. New technology and hence expensive.

        2. Old technology and hence “junk.”

        3. Collector’s items and hence expensive.

        It’s the destruction of most items in stage 2 that makes those that remain valuable in stage 3.

      2. Long time ago my wife agreed I could keep one dozen physical hardware computers in the garage. Some are large and I’ve not powered them up for a long time, mostly because I’m not fond of stinky firecracker blue smoke exploding capacitors.

        They all live on most excellently in emulation and my marriage is still secure..

  2. It would be interesting to see what’s on all the tapes. All one would have to do to have NASA demanding the tapes be given back is to find something interesting on one of them, and post it online for all to see.

    1. I think if they managed to read the tapes somehow, and put them online, that would be enough to assure “preservation for prosperity”. Making it public domain means that anyone in the world would have the chance to “discover something interesting” including NASA. No need to preserve the hard media really.

    2. I imagine whatever was on them has been copied, through the years, to more modern systems. Or at least the relevant data. I’d hope that with all the expense of sending probes around the Universe, they’d think to keep the data they generated. It’s probably all on one sector of a hard disk somewhere, RAIDed and backed up of course.

      That said, the cost of bringing these machines back up to working, which can ALWAYS be done with enough money, won’t be high compared to the missions etc etc. Just in case something useful comes up that inspires someone later.

      Of course those missions’ budgets are all from 40 years ago, and long since spent. How about a commitment each year for nations to cut military spending by 1% and increase space spending by 1%? And the leftover money go to something crazy like free hospitals.

      1. There are ways to copy the raw data off old tapes. Once it’s all copied, then software can be written to decode what’s formatting and what’s data to sift them apart. Once the data is in hand, then it can be decoded to human readable/visible form.

    1. Neither would I considering what they have already destroyed as being “of no further use”, or more recently, “of no historically significance”.

      Including the original video recordings of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Although I understand they are now claiming these were “accidentally” included in a batch of tapes which were degaussed and re-used.

      1. Too much hassle to archive them I suppose. That, and the video and the tape medium itself would be worthless by now. They didn’t design video tape for long-term archiving. Actually there’s just about nothing designed for that. Maybe some crazy thing with lasers and mineral crystals.

  3. The computing rack contract tag clearly dates it to July 5th, 1962. This is Mercury era (Friendship 7: February 20th ’62).
    In the ’60s, Goddard was all about unmanned satellite tracking and telemetry. given the nature of the tapes, it fits. Nothing related to manned space flight, but still really cool historical hardware.

    1. Given the interest in, um, “observation of the Earth” (and particularly those parts behind the Iron Curtain), and the mysterious contract number there may be more to this story than meets the eye.

      1. But even if there was such a connection, the data is just worthless today. There are now more, newer and better satellites flying above the earth and also this area.

    1. Wow, MODCOMP .. there are a few of those out there still running imdustrial processes, I bet .. My specialty up until a few years back was replacing industrial control systems with newer systems. Surprisingly interesting, work that required some sophisticated methods because you had to reverse engineer a functioning, well understood system at a semantic level, with near-perfect accuracy and install it with minimal disruption.

      Got to see a.lot of interesting, historical computing.systems that way. Amazing.how capable and elegant some of them.were, given the limitations. The limitations of the systems probably forced a certain amount of elegance in approach, since there were no digital tools to assist with managing complexity.

  4. His wife may have said “It keeps him off the streets at night.” Mine said that to a friend of hers while poking their heads into my play room. (1 three-bay rack and two singles ATT).

  5. OK the hardware may be difficult to preserve, but the telemetry data for all of NASA back then would probably fit on a single MicroSD card of a mobile phone these days with free space left over. The tapes should be backed up.

    NASA deciding now, would be like someone deciding 70 years after some papyrus scrolls were written concluding that nothing of historical importance were written on them and they could all be burned.

    1. “NASA deciding now, would be like someone deciding 70 years after some papyrus scrolls were written concluding that nothing of historical importance were written on them and they could all be burned.”

      As someone who worked with the NASA bureaucracy, no truer statement has been made. The agency is a faint shadow of it’s glory days from the “Camelot” (JFK) era. Where once upon a time, the trumpet call of humanity exploring space (Star Trek, The Outer Limits, all the “B” sci-fi movies), was heard loud and clear by the visionaries of that era. Who made it their mission to explore “the final frontier”.

      Complete travesty that NASA is almost like the corrupt VA. All the veterans who made the Apollo program possible lament the misguided incompetent management that permeates the organization like a cancer. The management bureaucracy is mind numbingly destroying NASA from within.

      A long way from NASA’s finest hour (the crisis management of Apollo 13).
      For several hours of good listening:

      Keep in mind, these were really young guys (with the exception of
      Gene Kranz), who were in uncharted territory, making decisions on
      new system configurations on-the-fly.

      NASA, today ?….. the crew would’ve been corpses floating in the
      cold vacuum of space for eternity.

      1. The thing is, these tapes are just boring old plasma instrument data from the crappy old satellites we launched in the 60s. We have way better instruments today which are freely accessible to the public, e.g. MMS, THEMIS, MAVEN.

        1. Yea! No amazing science took place, just general run of the mill stuff that happens every day – From the NASA report “Most of the tapes were not labeled and of the tapes that were labeled, the content appeared to be space science related with missions including Pioneer and Hellos and the inclusive dates range was 1961-1974.”

          The line I love most from the report is “consulted with scientists” … “and came to the determination that tapes do not contain historically significant information that needs to be preserved”

  6. Everyone talking about the data being interesting needs to read up on the Cray Archaeology project. Having the data is one thing, knowing what it contains and the structure is another thing.

  7. Pioneer 10 and 11! Those were the first probes to Jupiter in the early 1970’s. There are many people who would love to get the original digital data. Only the photo printouts remain–the digital data wasn’t kept. (At the time digital data was just considered considered an intermediate format. Only the photos were the “official” release.)

    A decade ago the Planetary Society sponsored a search for any original digital tapes. Tapes were found at Ames Research Center (they designed Pioneer, instead of JPL), but I think they contained all the received transmissions EXCEPT the science data. So now we know the exact location of the probe at each point, but still no close-up pixels of Jupiter as it was in 1973.

    1. Well then, I bet the Planetary Society would like to have this, to see if they can recover anything. Modern processing methods can do wonders with this old data, especially video and image transmissions. In the 1970’s and earlier, the usual practice was to display the received video and still images on a TV monitor then aim a camera at the monitor.
      That’s why the Apollo landings and other old stuff like pictured from the Lunokhod Moon rovers look so low resolution and blurry. Someone was decoding images direct from the tape recordings from the Lunokhods. The images were far sharper than what was released decades ago.

      The same process was used to record many live TV programs, aim a film camera at a studio TV monitor. That frequently introduced blur and distortion along with dark halos around bright areas. Reruns of shows like “The Honeymooners” looked like crap until a ton of digital processing was done with the original films to clean them up.

  8. The very computer used to render the 1st 3d computer animated movie: the moon landing, using software provided by the aliens who crashed at Roswell, living at the time at the lunar base on the dark side of the moon, revealed in 1973 by NASA rouges calling themselves Pink Floyd.

    & Now NASA has suggested the super intelligent, self-aware computer be destroyed. I know a cover up when I see one! Scully, the truth is out there…

    Disclaimer: lol I’m not really that crazy, but It’s too bad old computers like that don’t get more love…

    1. I wondered if at the bottom of that pile of tapes they’ll find one with a fading post-it note: “Dear Stanley, here is the telemetry data you requested to make your moonshot look convincing”.

      ;)

      1. It’s beneath the one where they ran the simulations that allowed them to fake GPS signals. A couple of the tapes have the equations that translate flat projections to spherical projections.

  9. Unfortunately, “ruined computer hardware and moldy probably totally useless media” is standard fare when you encounter an old engineer with a basement/garage/barn full of hardware. Even some of the engineers and hobbyists I know who are actively using/working on older hardware seem to end up with too much and make poor decisions w.r.t. storage — things they should *know* not to do.

    Oh well! You save what you can.

  10. Can’t quite read the name on those tape drives, but it reminds me of the day. IBM (as in yours truly) had a patent on using vacuum columns to keep the slack on either side of the head, so there were many weird looking solutions from competitors, like buckets that held the tape and were weighed. Too little tape, dump more in, getting full, pull some out. Ah, back in the day.

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