Posted by: Brian | April 16, 2009

A NASA Archivist, a Junkyard Warrior, and a Technoarchaeologist Save Lunar History

Earth Rise taken by the Lunar Orbiter 1 (NASA/LOIRP)

Earthrise taken by the Lunar Orbiter 1 (NASA/LOIRP)

A little off topic, but this recent news story really grabbed my attention. Nancy Evans, a NASA archivist, had a mountain of “unreadable” data tapes from the Lunar Orbiter missions of 1966 and 1967. These tapes contained over 2000 images including the iconic “Earthrise” photographed by the unmanned Lunar Oribiter 1.

Low resolution versions of some images had been made public, but the high resolution images only existed as analog data on 2 inch magnetic tape that required an obscure machine – an FR-900 Ampex tape drive – to read them. Evans eventually

An AMPEX FR-900 recorder (left) is used at Goldstone.  (NASA)

An AMPEX FR-900 recorder (left) is used at Goldstone. (NASA)

managed to salvage three non-functioning drives – each of which weighed nearly a ton – and stored them in her garage while she tried unsuccessfully to get the funds for their repair.

Finally in 2007, with Evans long retired from NASA, a team of space enthusiasts, engineers, technicians, and students – with NASA support – rebuilt a functioning drive and started releasing the lunar images. It took considerable ingenuity to repair the tape drive – including some MacGyvering of junkyard supplies – but the results are spectacular.

Comparions between original image and new digitized version (NASA/LOIRP)

Comparions between original image and new digitized version (NASA/LOIRP)

While I don’t expect to write often about space exploration on my archaeology blog, I couldn’t pass up this story because of the preservation issues it illustrates. I tell the students working in my lab that our goal is to produce a record of our data that will last for 100 years. This story shows the effort it can take to accomplish this goal. The preservation of historic records – at NASA and in my lab – is a challenge and, at least sometimes, a surprisingly fascinating story.

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Responses

  1. [...] have here in the present will become part of the past? Brian at Old Dirt- New Thoughts presents a cautionary tale with a happy ending, starring NASA! I tell the students working in my lab that our goal is to produce a record of our [...]

  2. [...] may be pleased to know that there is a small group of "technoarcheologists" who have been working (like pirates) with the original Lunar Orbiter analog data tapes. Their [...]

  3. [...] Nancy Evans is a hero, and the people at LOIRP are maniacs.  I love them.  [edited to add]: An archaeologist’s take. But there was a problem. Although the original high-resolution images were saved on 2-inch-wide [...]


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