The iconic but grainy footage of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the Moon, broadcast live worldwide 40 years ago, will soon be replaced by restored versions of the most celebrated Apollo 11 footage.
A still from the footage being restored (Courtesy NASA)
But in a press conference July 15, NASA officials noted they never found their most sought-after archival prizes, original tapes of the slow-scan video sent from the Moon to Earth. Investigators concluded that the tapes were most likely purged of data and recycled into later NASA missions as policy dictated, without ever being singled out for saving. ?
NASA Senior Video Engineer Richard Nafzger, who worked on the video portion of the mission 40 years ago and has been in charge of searching for the best available footage, said he felt terrible when he reached that conclusion.
On the bright side, NASA and video restorer Lowry Digital are working with the best source materials that do actually exist to create cleaned-up versions of the footage showing for more detail and far less distortion and snow.
The full package of restored footage is expected in September. But NASA showed some restored video side-by-side with originals; in the new version of Armstrong’s first steps, features in the spacecraft and spacesuit, such as reflections in the glass helmet, are now visible. The black sky is free of artifacts.
The broadcast version of that video has a ghostly, choppy look with all sorts of flaws. That video came from the sky at 10 frames per second, 320 lines. In order to provide video to broadcasters, NASA had special standards converters constructed for each of the tracking stations that would receive the signals. The converters relied on simple optical conversion—a standard NTSC television camera trained on the screen of a special slow-scan monitor.? ?
While this simple conversion tactic worked, it was far from satisfactory.
Investigators hunted for the unconverted footage on 1-inch instrumentation tape on which narrow-band video shared space with several other tracks of data. The large 14-inch reels zipped around at 120 inches per second, holding about 15 minutes of video. Thousands of such tapes moved from NASA to the National Records Center, were most were tested, de-gaussed and re-used in later missions
Pressed by reporters about why the original tapes weren’t set aside, Nafziger noted that the video engineers’ job was to get the video down and converted to a format broadcasters could carry live. That was achieved, and various versions of that broadcast footage remains. The tapes made at the time were only intended as a backup in case transfer for live broadcast failed.
“Our (search) team was very dedicated,” he said. “Thousands of people around the world were trying to help us. I just wish that someone had said that these tapes have got to be set aside. No one at NASA treated them any differently than any other tapes.”? ?
Whatever the source, NASA is excited about the new pictures. “The restoration is ongoing and may produce even better video,” Nafzger said. “We’re thrilled with the progress and with the restored video from the best source material obtained.”?
These included archived videotape from CBS, additional videotape recorded in Sydney, Australia, 16mm kinescope recordings made by NASA, and even 8mm home movie footage shot from a monitor screen at an Australian tracking site.?