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
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.
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.