Lunar mission's famous photos restored, digitized

This restored Lunar Orbiter 1 image, originally taken Aug. 23, 1966, was obtained from old tape drives by the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project at NASA’s Ames Research Center.

NASA/LOIRP

This restored Lunar Orbiter 1 image, originally taken Aug. 23, 1966, was obtained from old tape drives by the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project at NASA’s Ames Research Center.

LOS ANGELES — Rising over the battered surface of the moon, Earth loomed in a shimmering arc covered in a swirling skin of clouds. The image, taken in 1966 by NASA's robotic probe Lunar Orbiter 1, presented a stunning juxtaposition of planet and moon that no earthling had ever seen before.

It was dubbed then the "Picture of the Century."

"The most beautiful thing I'd ever seen," remembered Keith Cowing, who saw it as an 11-year-old and credited it with eventually leading him to work for NASA.

But in the mad rush of discovery, even the breathtaking can get mislaid.

NASA was so preoccupied with getting an astronaut to the moon ahead of the Soviets that little attention was paid to the mountains of scientific data that flowed back to Earth from its early space missions. The data, stored on miles of fragile tapes, grew into mountains that were packed up and sent to a government warehouse with crates of other junk.

They eventually came to the attention of Nancy Evans, a no-nonsense woman who had been trained as a biologist but found her niche as a NASA archivist.

Evans was at her desk in the 1970s when a clerk walked into her office, asking what he should do with a truck-sized heap of data tapes that had been released from storage.

"What do you usually do with things like that?" she asked.

"We usually destroy them," he replied.

Evans knew her mission: to preserve the history of human space exploration. "Do not destroy those tapes," she said.

She talked her bosses at the Jet Propulsion Lab into storing them in a warehouse. "I could not morally get rid of this stuff," said Evans, 71, at her Sun Valley, Calif., home.

She had no idea what she was letting herself in for. The full collection of Lunar Orbiter data amounted to 2,500 tapes. Assembled on pallets, they constituted an imposing monolith 10 feet wide, 20 feet long and 6 feet high.

And there was no point, she realized, in preserving the tapes unless she also had an exotic FR-900 Ampex tape drive to read them. Only a few dozen of the $330,000 machines, each 7 feet tall and weighing nearly a ton, had been made for the military.

She scoured government salvage lists for a castoff FR-900. She kept watch for years. Then one day in the late 1980s, she got a call from Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. "We heard you're looking for FR-900s. We've got three of them. Where do you want us to send them?"

Having already stretched her bosses' goodwill at JPL by storing the tapes there, she reluctantly agreed to store the tape drives — none of which worked — in her own garage.

There they sat — for two decades.

Evans applied regularly to NASA for funding to repair the drives but was turned down. Finally, in 2005, retired and doubtful that the images would ever see the light of day, she gave up on NASA and went public.

Her plea ended up on a blog, where it caught the attention of Dennis Wingo, an author, designer and space junkie extraordinaire. He went for a second opinion from his friend Keith Cowing, who worked for NASA for several years and now operates the NASA Watch Web site. In April 2007, he and Wingo pulled up to Evans' home and loaded up the dirty, dusty FR-900s.

They enlisted an old Army vet, Ken Zin, who knew machinery. Wingo, Cowing and Zin worked long hours with a few student volunteers. "We felt a sense of urgency," said Greg Schmidt, deputy director of NASA's Lunar Science Institute at Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., where the tape drives were being worked on. They decided they would focus their efforts on the earthrise picture.

After three months of work, Cowing gazed again at the image of Earth rising above the lunar landscape. Unlike the picture that the public had seen, this digitized version had twice the resolution and four times the dynamic range. "When that picture came up, I had tears in my eyes," Cowing said. The team released its second image this weekend: Copernicus crater. The team hopes to retrieve all 2,000 images from the five missions.

Lunar mission's famous photos restored, digitized 03/21/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 21, 2009 9:35pm]

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