McMoon’s revealed: Inside the hacker project that’s saving NASA’s lunar photos


posted Friday, April 25, 2014 at 3:19 PM EDT


We've all been there: Media comes and goes, and despite your best efforts to keep your photo archives current, eventually you find a stray. Perhaps it's an old Iomega Zip disk that got misplaced, or a floppy from your Sony Mavica that you found at the bottom of a drawer. Either way, you know there are photos on there, but you lack the hardware necessary to get at them. Your Zip drive long ago succumbed to the click of death, and seriously... when's the last time you saw a computer with a floppy drive?

It might surprise you, though, to learn that the same thing happened to photos shot by NASA while it was seeking out the best potential landing sites for the Apollo program. Sure, your lost family photos are important to you, but these missing images were in a whole different league. Shot from five unmanned lunar orbiters in 1966 and 1967, the photos were the first to be captured from lunar orbit. Among their number were the first image of earth from the moon, and the very first image showing our planet in its entirity. These photos weren't just important -- they were an absolutely irreplaceable part of mankind's history.

All that remained of images shot during NASA's Lunar Orbiter program were grainy, low-quality reproductions like this, a distant copy of the first ever photo of the earth from space.

And yet they were imprisoned on two-inch magnetic tape, readable only by Ampex FR-900 tape drives. These refrigerator-sized, 600-pound behemoths were exceptionally rare even when they were new, used only by governmental agencies like NASA, the US Air Force, and the Federal Aviation Administration. When the tapes -- archived by the government for two decades -- were returned to NASA in the 1980s, there was no way to read them.

Thanks to the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project, the detail of the original photo is restored. The result is breathtaking, and well worth the huge effort involved.

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory archivist Nancy Evans and colleague Mark Nelson knew that the tapes and their contents had to be preserved, and with her colleagues, gathered all the FR-900 tape drives they could find. Only four still existed, and none was operational. Their tape heads hadn't been manufactured since 1974, and even if they were refurbished, nobody had access to the documentation necessary to repair and calibrate the drives. And funding for the recovery project proved to be surprisingly difficult. While Evans and Nelson were able to make analog copies of the tapes, they couldn't get to their digital contents.

Eventually, Nelson returned to private industry, Evans retired, and the faulty drives ended up stored in a chicken shed. Without the drives, the photos too languished on their tapes, waiting in a storage unit in Moorpark, California for the breakthrough that would set them free. In the meantime, the only records of the photos were low-resolution, grainy copies of copies, the high-res originals locked away in their technological black hole.

Side-by-side comparison of a LOIRP-recovered image (top) with the original -- until recently, all that was available. Note the inset comparing the resolution of the two images.

And then that breakthrough came: In 2004, researcher and self-described space nut Philip Horzempa came across a memo discussing Evans and Nelson's attempts to unlock the data. A forum post by Horzempa discussing his archive find was spotted by Skycorp president Dennis Wingo and NASA engineer Keith Cowing. And from there, the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project was born. As more and more people learned the whereabouts of the tapes, and the existence of the drives that -- once repaired -- could read them, the funding arrived, the Ampex tape machines were repaired, and a first image was extracted from its magnetic grave as a proof of concept.

The rest, as they say, is history -- and it's detailed beautifully in a just-published Wired article. Wired spoke to the individuals who made the project possible, finding out about their base of operations in a one-time McDonalds restaurant now dubbed McMoon, as well as some of the technical details behind freeing -- and decoding -- the data on the tapes. It makes for a great Friday read, accompanied by some truly beautiful photos of our natural satellite that, for decades, the world had forgotten.

Close-up of the lunar surface, comparing the original and LOIRP-restored images.

Read Wired's article, "The Hackers Who Recovered NASA’s Lost Lunar Photos", for the rest of the story.

(via DPReview)