Apollo 11 astronaut on moon

Call it “one small mistake by somebody, one giant loss for mankind.”

The original magnetic tapes that recorded the iconic images of man’s first footsteps on the moon are missing and scientists fear they are in danger of deteriorating into dust unless they are found quickly and converted to digital format.

Australian scientists at the Parkes Observatory and the Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station in Australia have launched an intensive effort to find nearly 700 boxes of original, high quality slow-scan TV tapes used to capture the Apollo 11 landing on July 21, 1969. The two Australian stations, along with California’s Goldstone station, received signals from the lunar base.

What the world saw. Courtesy of Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station

While many people are familiar with the grainy footage showing Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon’s surface, most don’t know that the original images sent to earth were high-quality transmissions. The conversion of the original signal into a format that could be rebroadcast over standard televisions accounted for the blurry images of Armstrong and fellow lunar astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin.

“The quality of what you saw on TV at home was substantially degraded,” John Sarkissian, a scientist stationed at Parkes, told the Sydney Morning Herald.

Scientists at Parkes and Honeysuckle Creek took Polaroid photographs of the original high-quality images on their screens during the moon landing. Despite the degradation that technology introduced, their images are significantly sharper than the those broadcasted to the public over television.

Polaroid view of screen at Parkes Observatory. Courtesy of Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station

“I can still see the screen,” said David Cooke, 74, a Parkes control room engineer in 1969. “I was amazed, the quality was fairly good.”

Sarkissian’s interest in the tapes began in 1997 when he was researching the role of Parkes in the Apollo 11 mission prior to the making of the movie, “The Dish”.

The film tells the story of the capture of the first Apollo images and features the role of the Parkes station in broadcasting the event to the world. During the initial walk on the moon, the U.S. Goldstone station was experiencing technical difficulties. Honeysuckle Creek’s antenna was the smallest of the trio but had the distinction of receiving and transmitting Armstrong’s “one small step for man.”

It wasn’t until Sarkissian contacted colleagues at NASA that anyone realized the tapes were missing.

“People may have thought ‘we have tapes of the moon walk, we don’t need these’,” said Sarkissian. “We want the public to see it the way the moon walk was meant to be seen. There will only ever be one first moon walk.”

Originally stored at Goddard Space Flight Center, records indicate the tapes were moved to the U.S. National Archives in 1970. For reasons unknown, about 700 boxes of the SSTV tapes were returned to Goddard in 1984.

“We have the documents to say they were withdrawn, but no one knows exactly where they went,” Sarkissian said.

If found, Sarkissian hopes to have the tapes digitized for permanent archival. The magnetic media, however, are subject to deterioration and there is concern that they could crumble to dust before their information is saved. Further, the only known device for decoding the original analog tapes is at a Goddard facility slated for closure in October.

Tracking the lost tapes has been made more difficult by the fact many of the people involved with the space program have retired or died.

Among the missing tapes are the original recordings of the other five Apollo moon landings.

“We are working on the assumption they still exist,” said Sarkissian. “Your guess is a good as mine as to where they are.”

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