House of Representatives Honors Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project

Monday, April 27, 2009
Ms. ZOE LOFGREN of California. Madam Speaker, I rise to commend the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project and all those who have contributed their time and effort to ensure that historic images and vital data from the Lunar Orbiter missions of the 1960s are not lost to future generations.
In 1965, Charles Byrne, an engineer with Bellcomm, Inc., had the foresight to propose that NASA record data from the Lunar Orbiter missions onto tape recorders. NASA agreed and the images returned from the Lunar Orbiters were backed up on AMPEX FR-900 tape drives. To date, these images are some of highest resolution images we have of the Moon. Those images include a high-resolution version of “Earthrise,” the first picture of the Earth from the Moon’s vantage point. Time Magazine has called this image “the photo of the century.” The tapes also contain the first stereo imagery of the Moon’s surface. Indeed, these are some of the best images of the Moon ever taken, far superior from those received from the Hubble telescope.

Astonishingly, all of the images stored on the 1,500 14-inch diameter tape reels were nearly destroyed. With its focus turned to the Apollo mission, NASA saw little further use for the tapes. Fortunately, Nancy Evans, co-founder of NASA Planetary Data Systems, convinced her superiors at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to retain the tapes. Evans also salvaged three refrigerator-sized FR-900 tape drives, which she stored in her own garage for two decades. Evans and Mark Nelson, of Caltech, managed to get a few tape drives running but their project ultimately folded. NASA turned down her requests for assistance after placing an estimate of $6 million on the cost to restore the data.
Fortunately, Evans’ efforts caught the attention of Dennis Wingo and Keith Cowing, both of whom have been focused on space exploration for many years. They arranged to move the tapes and drives to NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. Ames’ director, Peter Worden, arranged for them to store the equipment in an old abandoned McDonalds, which they jokingly referred to as “McMoon’s.” Wingo and Cowing began working with Ken Zin, an army veteran, to get the drives up and running. NASA contributed $100,000 to the efforts. Cowing invested his own money in the project and the team enlisted the support of local students to recover the images.
There is still a long way to go to complete this project but the public’s interest in it is more than just a matter of historical record. The images have the potential to push NASA’s climate data back a full decade. And just as the Lunar Orbiter images provided data crucial to safely landing our first astronauts on the moon, those same images will assist the current efforts of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission by providing a baseline for understanding the changes to the Moon between the 1960s and present day.
As with the Lunar Orbiter’s images themselves, the efforts of those who have devoted themselves to this project should not go unnoticed or unrecorded. Although space exploration is a vast, complicated enterprise, it ultimately relies on individuals who have the vision and imagination to move us forward. The Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project is an example of that kind of vision and imagination, and those who have contributed to the Project and to preceding efforts surely deserve our gratitude.
Source: Government Printing Office
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2 Replies to “House of Representatives Honors Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project”

  1. 2nd graf down: I’d like to see some of those pictures of the moon taken by the Hubble Telescope…

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