Monday, August 14, 2006

The original film footage of astronaut Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon, one of the most important artifacts of the 20th century, has been lost.

The television broadcast seen by about 600 million people in July 1969 is preserved for posterity, but the original tapes from which the footage was taken have been mislaid, most likely in NASA’s vast archives at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

The footage could transform our view of the moon landings, offering images far sharper than the blurred, grainy video shown around the world. It also could lay to rest the conspiracy theory that the landings were faked on a Hollywood soundstage.

Despite its iconic status, the television footage was the equivalent of a photocopy of a photocopy. It came from a camera that had been pointed at a black-and-white monitor on Earth. The image on the monitor, in turn, had been stripped of much of its detail.

To make sure the transmission would make it back to Earth, the images sent from Apollo 11 were recorded at 10 frames per second, and had to be converted to 60 frames per second in order to be broadcast. In the process, much of the detail was lost.

Stan Lebar, now 81, was in charge of the images from Apollo 11. What he saw was so blurred that he initially thought something had gone wrong.

“My immediate reaction when I looked over at my counterparts at NASA was, ‘What’s happening?’” he recalled. “We thought there had been a problem getting the converter to work properly.”

“What was broadcast to the world was nowhere near as good as what was received,” said John Sarkissian of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization’s Parkes Observatory in Australia, one of the three tracking stations that taped the original footage before sending it on to Houston in converted form.

Those tapes, although nowhere near the standard of normal television transmissions, would be of far better quality than the video we have today, especially if processed using modern digital techniques.

Rather than prizing the tapes as vital recordings, NASA simply filed them away. As personnel retired or died, the location of the tapes was forgotten.

Such problems are not unique to NASA.

“I just think this is what happens when you have a large government bureaucracy that functions for decade after decade,” said Keith Cowing, editor of the Web site “It’s not malicious or intentional, but I think it’s unfortunate that NASA doesn’t have maybe just one more person whose job it is to look back at its history.”

At the start of this year, a coalition of scientists and NASA veterans — including Mr. Lebar, Mr. Sarkissian and Richard Nafzger, a senior engineer at NASA — began to hunt through the archives.

They have deduced that the tapes were forwarded to the U.S. National Archives before being called back by NASA to be stored at the Goddard Space Flight Center.

Goddard is also home to the only equipment that can still play the tapes, which use an obsolete 14-inch format — equipment that was due to be dismantled in October until Mr. Nafzger intervened.

Now the group hopes to persuade NASA to devote enough manpower to the search.

A spokesman for the space agency said: “We’re trying to track them down through the paperwork created at the time. But it’s 35 years ago, so it’s a challenge.”

Mr. Cowing said: “For all we know, it’s sitting somewhere in a nice, cool dry place, exactly where it should be, but someone’s mislabeled a routing slip. I can’t imagine they’d throw this stuff out.”

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