The first article, published last month, is Doug Bierend’s “The Hackers Who Recovered NASA’s Lost Lunar Photos”.
The second, first part of a promised series, is David S. F. Portree’s “North American Aviation’s 1965 Mars/Venus Piloted Flyby Study”.
Sitting incongruously among the hangars and laboratories of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley is the squat facade of an old McDonald’s. You won’t get a burger there, though–its cash registers and soft-serve machines have given way to old tape drives and modern computers run by a rogue team of hacker engineers who’ve rechristened the place McMoon’s. These self-described techno-archaeologists have been on a mission to recover and digitize forgotten photos taken in the ‘60s by a quintet of scuttled lunar satellites.
The Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project has since 2007 brought some 2,000 pictures back from 1,500 analog data tapes. They contain the first high-resolution photographs ever taken from behind the lunar horizon, including the first photo of an earthrise (first slide above). Thanks to the technical savvy and DIY engineering of the team at LOIRP, it’s being seen at a higher resolution than was ever previously possible.
“We’re reaching back to a capability that existed but couldn’t be touched back when it was created,” says Keith Cowing, co-lead and founding member at LOIRP. “It’s like having a DVD in 1966, you can’t play it. We had resolution of the earth of about a kilometer [per pixel]. This is an image taken a quarter of a fucking million miles away in 1966. The Beatles were warming up to play Shea Stadium at the moment it was being taken.”
Between 1966 and ’67, five Lunar Orbiters snapped pictures onto 70mm film from about 30 miles above the moon. The satellites were sent mainly to scout potential landing sites for manned moon missions. Each satellite would point its dual lens Kodak camera at a target, snap a picture, then develop the photograph. High- and low-resolution photos were then scanned into strips called framelets using something akin to an old fax machine reader.
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The photos were stored with remarkably high fidelity on the tapes, but at the time had to be copied from projection screens onto paper, sometimes at sizes so large that warehouses and even old churches were rented out to hang them up. The results were pretty grainy, but clear enough to identify landing sites and potential hazards. After the low-fi printing, the tapes were shoved into boxes and forgotten.
They changed hands several times over the years, almost getting tossed out before landing in storage in Moorpark, California. Several abortive attempts were made to recover data from the tapes, which were well kept, but it wasn’t until 2005 that NASA engineer Keith Cowing and space entrepreneur Dennis Wingo were able to bring the materials and the technical know how together.
When they learned through a Usenet group that former NASA employee Nancy Evans might have both the tapes and the super-rare Ampex FR-900 drives needed to read them, they jumped into action. They drove to Los Angeles, where the refrigerator-sized drives were being stored in a backyard shed surrounded by chickens. At the same time, they retrieved the tapes from a storage unit in nearby Moorpark, and things gradually began to take shape. Funding the project out of pocket at first, they were consumed with figuring out how to release the images trapped in the tapes.
n mid-1964, just three years after President John F. Kennedy put the U.S. on course for the moon, a team of engineers at Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Alabama, became the first NASA group to study piloted Mars/Venus flyby missions based on Apollo Program hardware. They conducted their study because they wanted to see humans voyage to other planets and because President Lyndon B. Johnson had made it clear that, to reduce spaceflight costs, the U.S. civilian space program after Apollo should be based on spacecraft and rockets developed for the moon landing.
In its public statements about its future, NASA emphasized that President Johnson supported Earth-orbiting space stations. Modified Apollo Command and Service Module (CSM) spacecraft would ferry scientist-astronauts, supplies, and new experiment apparatus to the low-cost stations, which, it was hoped, would provide concrete benefits to American taxpayers through research into biomedicine, new manufacturing processes, Earth and Sun observations, and advanced technology development. Johnson also supported continued lunar exploration.
LBJ’s vision of NASA’s future made no mention of piloted Mars/Venus flybys based on Apollo’s technological legacy. On the other hand, neither did it specifically forbid them.
Even before the MSFC engineers completed their study in February 1965, other NASA centers sensed that they might be left behind and began their own studies of Apollo-based piloted Mars/Venus flybys. On 1 October 1964, North American Aviation (NAA), the Apollo CSM prime contractor, began such a study for the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) in Houston, Texas. NAA presented results of its nine-month study at MSC on 18 June 1965.
The company proposed to exploit three main Apollo Program hardware elements for its piloted flyby missions: the CSM; Saturn V rockets; and the Spacecraft-LEM Adapter (SLA), which in Apollo lunar landing missions linked the bottom of the CSM with the top of the Saturn V S-IVB third stage and housed the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) moon lander. NAA was the SLA prime contractor.
More is promised.