The most recent and impressive ones are the Lost Lunar Orbiter (satellite) pictures from 1966. It is mind-boggling what the folks did in those early days with so little money and primitive technology. Space was the new frontier then, and that magic cant be recreated easily. If someone can do it, we bet it will be the hackers (aka techno-archaeologists). Take a bow, Keith Conning and Dennis Wingo.
Finally, we just got bit by the nostalga bug when we read about Usenet and Radio Shack. Good old days!!!
Sitting incongruously among the hangars
and laboratories of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley is the
squat facade of an old McDonald’s. You won’t get a burger there,
though–its cash registers and soft-serve machines have given way to old
tape drives and modern computers run by a rogue team of hacker engineers
who’ve rechristened the place McMoon’s. These self-described
techno-archaeologists have been on a mission to recover and digitize
forgotten photos taken in the ‘60s by a quintet of scuttled lunar
The Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project
has since 2007 brought some 2,000 pictures back from 1,500 analog data
tapes. They contain the first high-resolution photographs ever taken
from behind the lunar horizon, including the first photo of an earthrise
(first slide above). Thanks to the technical savvy and DIY engineering
of the team at LOIRP, it’s being seen at a higher resolution than was
ever previously possible.
“We’re reaching back to a capability that existed but couldn’t be
touched back when it was created,” says Keith Cowing, co-lead and
founding member at LOIRP. “It’s like having a DVD in 1966, you can’t
play it. We had resolution of the earth of about a kilometer [per
pixel]. This is an image taken a quarter of a fucking million miles away
in 1966. The Beatles were warming up to play Shea Stadium at the moment
it was being taken.”
Between 1966 and ’67, five Lunar Orbiters snapped pictures onto 70mm
film from about 30 miles above the moon. The satellites were sent mainly
to scout potential landing sites for manned moon missions. Each
satellite would point its dual lens Kodak camera at a target, snap a
picture, then develop the photograph. High- and low-resolution photos
were then scanned into strips called framelets using something akin to
an old fax machine reader.
The images were beamed in modulated signals to one of three receiving
stations in Australia, Spain, or California, where the pictures–and collateral chatter from the NASA operators–were
recorded straight to tape. After finishing their missions, the
satellites were unceremoniously dashed against the moon rocks, clearing
the way for Apollo.
“These guys were operating right at the edge,” Cowing says with a
reverence for these NASA engineers that’s shared by his team. “There’s a
certain spy program heritage to all this, but these guys went above
that, because those spy satellites would send their images back. These
didn’t. They couldn’t. They were in lunar orbit.”
The photos were stored with remarkably high fidelity on the tapes,
but at the time had to be copied from projection screens onto paper,
sometimes at sizes so large that warehouses and even old churches were
rented out to hang them up. The results were pretty grainy, but clear
enough to identify landing sites and potential hazards. After the low-fi
printing, the tapes were shoved into boxes and forgotten.
They changed hands several times over the years, almost getting
tossed out before landing in storage in Moorpark, California. Several
abortive attempts were made to recover data from the tapes, which were
well kept, but it wasn’t until 2005 that NASA engineer Keith Cowing and
space entrepreneur Dennis Wingo were able to bring the materials and the
technical know how together.
When they learned through a Usenet
group that former NASA employee Nancy Evans might have both the tapes
and the super-rare Ampex FR-900 drives needed to read them, they jumped
into action. They drove to Los Angeles, where the refrigerator-sized
drives were being stored in a backyard shed surrounded by chickens. At
the same time, they retrieved the tapes from a storage unit in nearby
Moorpark, and things gradually began to take shape. Funding the project
out of pocket at first, they were consumed with figuring out how to
release the images trapped in the tapes.
“We’re both Apollo babies, so the moon to us was something that’s
unfinished business,” says Cowing.
“These tapes were sealed for history
by somebody who cared, and it was astonishing the condition they were
in. So we started buying used parts on eBay, Radioshack–I was sitting at
a black tie reception at one point buying something on my iPhone. We
just buy and reassemble these things bit by bit.”
The drives had to be rebuilt and in some cases completely
re-engineered using instruction manuals or the advice of people who used
to service them. The data they recovered then had to be demodulated and
digitized, which added more layers of technical difficulties.