Forty years to the day after Apollo 11 astronauts blasted off on the way to their historic first moon landing, NASA [Thursday] previewed restored video of the first moon walk. The enhanced images are a dramatic improvement over the pictures seen by hundreds of millions around the world when they were broadcast live from the moon.
On his way to being the first man to set foot on the moon, Neil Armstrong opened a door on the lunar landing craft that had a small television camera attached. The camera swung out, giving a worldwide audience its first look at - well, it was actually hard to tell at first.
"The camera worked, but what we saw at that point was rather disturbing, because it was not what we had simulated, and we knew we had a problem," said Stan Lebar, who helped develop that camera, a three-kilogram marvel of its day. But the signal it transmitted from the moon was lower quality than regular television, so it had to be converted to broadcast standards before it could be seen around the world.
Conversion process faulted for poor images
To convert it, technicians aimed a regular TV camera at a monitor showing the moon pictures, but NASA's Richard Nafzger says the converter was hard to adjust exactly right.
"Some of the degradation that you saw was not necessary. It was some operator error, some setup error. So degradation would occur by conversion, but in order to get live TV from the moon, when everything was set perfect, it was certainly acceptable for an historic event. And that was the goal, and that's what we did."
The raw television signals from the moon were recorded, along with voice communication and other data, on 14-track magnetic tape, and they went into storage, along with hundreds of thousands of other reels of tape containing data from satellites and other spacecraft. Modern digital imaging technology could probably do a better job upgrading the historic moon video, if technicians could get their hands on the original tape. Trouble is, several years ago, NASA realized the tapes were missing.
Search for missing tapes reaches disappointing conclusion
Nafzger headed a team to find the missing tapes, 45 reels out of hundreds of thousands of tapes with Apollo data. They ultimately concluded the tapes had been erased and reused to record data from later space programs.
"The records clearly showed that there's an inescapable conclusion that this team has reached, and that is that these 45 tapes were included in the several hundred thousand that were pulled out, recertified, degaussed [bulk-erased], and put back into the network."
But that's not the end of the story.
Nafzger's team scoured archives in and out of NASA - as far afield as Australia, in fact, where giant satellite dishes had captured Apollo's transmissions.
"We acquired what we considered the best available broadcast [tape]. We had tapes recorded in Sydney, Australia, during the mission. Mr. Lebar and I found kinescopes at the National Archives that had not been viewed in 36 years, that were made in Houston. And we found tapes that were fed directly from Houston to CBS, the raw data as recorded and archived."
Hooray for Hollywood!
Then NASA took their films and tapes to Hollywood and a company called Lowry Digital.
"We're probably the most prolific digital restoration house in the world," said company president Mike Inchalik, "having restored everything from Casablanca and Singing in the Rain and The Robe all the way up through the James Bond movies, Star Wars...."
Inchalik said the collection of miscellaneous bits of Apollo 11 video is exactly the sort of scenario they're used to dealing with in restoring Hollywood movies.
"The studios, the television broadcasters, routinely scour the earth to find the best surviving elements. And we are very often in the business of having to put together that patchwork, if you will, of material, and make it into a seamless, finsihed piece of material."
Seen side by side, the restored images look dramatically better, with more detail in the shadows and fewer artifacts of the video's 400,000-kilometer transmission path. You can see the results yourself on the NASA Web site. And NASA officials stress that this is just a partial restoration. The $230,000 project is still in progress, with the final version of the restored Apollo 11 TV pictures from the moon set to be released in September.