- The Washington Times - Friday, July 17, 2009

Whoops. There went Neil.

NASA admitted Thursday that it erased the original recordings of the first men landing on the moon as a cost-cutting measure back in an era when live TV was the media mode of choice.

Hollywood has come to the rescue, however. The space agency will pay film restoration company Lowry Digital $230,000 to cobble together pivotal scenes of the Apollo 11 moonwalk gleaned from old, forgotten TV and archive sources. The grainy images of yore have been spiffed up plenty. Preview clips reveal them to be crisp, digitized and in high definition — well-suited for modern tastes.

NASA noted that the restoration would “significantly enhance the video” with software technology and other high-tech techniques — never mind the skeptics who have always questioned the footage of astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin treading in moon dust or posing by an American flag that appeared to be blowing in the wind.

“The conspiracy theorists are going to believe what they are going to believe,” said Mike Inchalik, president of the Lowry, which has restored the likes of “Casablanca” and “Star Wars” to silver-screen magnificence in recent years.

Indeed, several filmmakers, authors and former engineers claimed the lunar landing was a hoax, or even a “$30 billion swindle,” as author William Kaysing once put it in his 1976 book, “We Never Went to the Moon.”

In September, the conspiracy buffs will have something new to question.

The full set of carefully restored, digitized recordings will be released to the public, showcasing moonwalks and the raising of Old Glory. Short previews can be seen at the NASA Web site (www.nasa.gov/multimedia/hd/apollo11.html).

But what of those long-lost original moon videos?

NASA discovered three years ago that the video footage made during the initial landing on July 20, 1969, was missing — and it has been scouring the planet for it ever since.

But goodbye, Neil.

“The three-year search for these original telemetry tapes was unsuccessful. A final report on the investigation is expected to be completed in the near future and will be publicly released at that time,” NASA said in a statement.

The detective work was left to Richard Nafzger, an engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center who coordinated TV production for the Apollo 11 mission. Mr. Nafzger has been on the trail of the lost footage since 2006.

The case grew as cold as the dark side of the moon. Mr. Nafzger revealed Thursday that the luminary lunar images had been included in a group of 200,000 tapes that were magnetically erased and then reused as a money-saving measure. But those were different times, perhaps.

“The goal was live TV,” Mr. Nafzger said. “We should have had a historian running around saying, ‘I don’t care if you are ever going to use them. We are going to keep them.’ ”

But NASA also realized there was no use crying over blank tapes. Slowly but surely, the agency unearthed copies of the footage at CBS News, National Archives, an Australian source and from its own vaults. Some of the fare had not been viewed for 36 years.

Mr. Nafzger defended the decision to use a Hollywood-based company to restore the existing moon footage.

“This company is restoring historic video. It mattered not to me where the company was from,” he said.

Meanwhile, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will soon provide some clear photographs of the former Apollo 11 landing site on the moon’s surface, providing insight about the old neighborhood to researchers and a curious public.

“Is the U.S. flag planted on the moon 40 years ago still standing? That’s just one of many questions researchers hope will be answered this year by new pictures of old Apollo landing sites,” said Leonard David, a columnist with Space.com.

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