One Giant Screwup for Mankind

Written by David Kushner, Wired

Monday January 1st, 2007

NASA put a man on the moon - then lost the videotape. A grizzled crew of ex-rocket jockeys are on a star-crossed mission to find it.

When the Eagle lunar module touched down on July 20, 1969, all eyes were on astronaut Neil Armstrong. But Stan Lebar’s ass was on the line.

A young electrical engineer at Westinghouse, Lebar had been tasked with developing a camera that could capture the most memorable moment of the 20th century – the Apollo 11 moon landing. The goal of the mission wasn’t merely to get a man on the moon. It was to send back a live television feed so that everyone could see it – particularly the Soviets, who had initiated the space race in 1957 by launching Sputnik. If the feed failed, Lebar, the designated spokesperson for the video setup, would turn the camera on himself at Mission Control in Houston and apologize to more than half a billion TV viewers. “It was my responsibility,” he says. “I’d have to stand up and take the hit.”

Building a camera that could survive the crushing g forces of liftoff and then function in near-weightlessness on the moon was only part of the challenge for Lebar. The portion of the broadcast spectrum traditionally used for video was sending vital ship data to Earth, and there was no room left for the standard black-and-white video format of the era: 525 scan lines of data at 30 frames per second, transmitted at 4.5 MHz. So Lebar helped devise a smaller “oddball format” – 320 scan lines at 10 fps, transmitted at a meager 500 kHz. Tracking stations back on Earth would take this so-called slow-scan footage, convert it for TV broadcast, and beam it to Mission Control, which would send it out for the world to see.

And that was the easy part. To ensure a direct transmission signal from the moon, NASA had to maintain stations in three continents – two in Australia (the Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station near Canberra and the Parkes Radio Observatory surrounded by sheep paddocks west of Sydney); one at the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in the Mojave Desert of California; and one at the Madrid Manned Flight Tracking Site in Spain. As Armstrong suited up for his first moonwalk, Dick Nafzger, the 28-year-old coordinator of the tracking stations’ TV operations, was as nervous as Lebar. Nafzger was the guy at Mission Control charged with monitoring ground equipment and the conversion of the slow-scan footage to US broadcast standards. “We were all going to be involved in something of monumental historic importance,” he says.

When Armstrong opened the hatch on the lunar module, stepped out onto the moon, and uttered his famous words about mankind’s giant leap, the tracking stations with a direct line on the Apollo’s signal were the ones in Australia. The 200-foot-diameter radio dish at the Parkes facility managed to withstand freak 70 mph gusts of wind and successfully captured the footage, which was converted and relayed to Houston. “When the door opened, I knew the camera was working,” Lebar says, “It was pure elation.”

The world watched in awe as Armstrong took his first steps, and the camera engineers at Mission Control started popping the champagne corks. Amid the celebration, though, Lebar scrutinized the video, and his joy vanished. He had known the converted footage wouldn’t be as good as a standard TV signal. But as Armstrong bounded through the Sea of Tranquility, the astronaut looked like a fuzzy gray blob wading through an inkwell. “We knew what that image should look like,” Lebar says, “and what I saw was nothing like what I’d simulated. We looked at each other and said, ‘What happened?'”

With the rush of history upon him, Lebar let the concern pass. “As much as we may have found it disturbing,” he says, “the public didn’t seem to mind. Everyone seemed happy to see the guy on the moon.” Lebar never even saw the raw transmission; only the few tracking-station engineers did. But as they converted the feed for Mission Control and the worldwide audience, they also recorded it onto huge reels of magnetic tape that were promptly sent to NASA to be filed for safekeeping.

Not long ago, Lebar learned why the footage had looked like mush: The transfer and broadcast had degraded the image badly, like a third-generation photocopy. “What the world saw was some ized thing,” says Lebar, now 81. “Posterity deserves more than that.” Good thing the engineers in Australia recorded the raw feed. Now Lebar and a crew of seasoned space cowboys are trying to get that original footage and show it to the world.

There is just one problem: NASA has lost the tapes.

EVERY YEAR, NASA buffs and vets of the Apollo 11 mission reunite for a picnic near Canberra at the site of the Honeysuckle Creek station, which was shuttered in 1981. Seventy-year-old Bill Wood, an engineer at Goldstone during the moonwalk, describes the event as “a bunch of old guys in hard hats looking at an antenna while local TV follows us around.” Sometimes, talk turns to the effort to persuade the Australian government to erect a fitting commemorative on the site. But mostly, they just chat and show off old pictures and memorabilia.

During the 2002 reunion, one of the retirees produced a souvenir he had rediscovered in his garage: a 14-inch reel of magnetic tape from the Apollo era. They passed it around, marveling at how big and clunky it was, and then went back to their barbecue. The next year, a couple of Honeysuckle Creek vets showed up with keepsakes even more impressive: still photos they had snapped of the monitors in the station showing the moonwalk. The images displayed the original slow-scan footage, not the version converted for television.

“When we saw them, we realized they were significantly better than what had been seen in Houston,” says Colin Mackellar, a local minister and self-described space nut. He was only 12 during the Apollo 11 mission, but watching it on TV shaped his life. When he’s not tending his flock at Greystanes Anglican Church, he’s updating his Web site,, a tribute to the tracking station and the radio wonks he idolized.

Wood dug through his files and found an old Polaroid that showed the slow-scan footage as it appeared on a monitor at Goldstone. Like the Honeysuckle Creek photos, it was of a much higher quality than anyone had imagined. Curious and perplexed, he was determined to figure out whether the raw images of the moonwalk really were more crisp than what the world had seen in 1969.

The potential historical and educational value of the original tapes would be enormous. Late last year, an audio expert caused a big stir when he proved that Neil Armstrong actually said, “That’s one small step for a man,” not “one small step for man,” during his famous walk on the moon. Surely the discovery of a better version of video so iconic that it served as the original network identification for MTV would cause an even greater uproar. Mackellar urged the grizzled crew to send NASA what he calls the “bootleg” magnetic tape reel discovered the year before. Maybe some of the original moonwalk footage was on it.

But the 14-inch reels were an archaic format, almost completely forgotten even at the space agency. After some sleuthing, Mackellar and his comrades discovered the one guy inside NASA who had the know-how – and the interest – to help them: Dick Nafzger. He was the last of the old Apollo video engineers still employed at the space agency; the rest had either retired or died.

Nafzger tracked down a buddy at the Data Evaluation Lab at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. The lab was used to record and analyze spacecraft data captured during the agency’s golden age. The central treasure there was the analog recorder – a 7-foot-high gray machine with big black knobs and huge reel-to-reel spools. It looked like a prop from the ’60s TV show Lost in Space, but the hulking gizmo was the only known piece of equipment that could read data from the ancient tapes.

Nafzger spun the 14-inch reel through the analog recorder, and his heart sank. The tape predated Apollo 11 and contained no video – just audio and data from an earlier mission. But the good news was that the device was able to read it, proving that the tape had not degraded, even after sitting in a garage for decades. The data of the moonwalk might be recoverable after all, if they could just find the right reel in NASA’s vast archives.

Lebar, who understood the slow-scan system better than anyone else, had also joined the hunt. Retired since 1987, he had been building educational astronomy installations in public parks around his home in Maryland and taking the occasional trip to Europe with his wife. Like a good engineer, he greeted word of the tapes with skepticism. “I’m not going to go turn NASA upside down based on someone’s memory of 35 years ago,” he told the Honeysuckle Creek posse.

Then the guys showed him the evidence. Mackellar had posted the sharp photos of the original slow-scan footage and the murky TV broadcast stills side by side on his Web site. When Lebar saw the two together, his jaw dropped. That sinking feeling he had experienced in Houston had plagued him for decades. Had the world seen a lame version of the moonwalk? One look at these pictures and he knew that his camera had worked properly. “We simulated this and watched it on a 10-frame-rate monitor. This was what I remembered,” Lebar says, “and here was my proof.”

Lebar and Nafzger were both eager to find the tapes, and they both lived within an hour’s drive of Goddard. There was one hitch, though: The space agency itself wasn’t being helpful. After a few inquiries into the current whereabouts of the tape, the gang ran into red tape and, more surprisingly, indifference. “NASA had so many budget cuts, when we said we were looking for the Apollo 11 tapes, they said, ‘Well, that’s nice,'” Wood recalls. “It was difficult to get help.”

So Nafzger told Lebar, “NASA’s not paying me to look for tapes, but I can look unofficially.” These guys had transmitted data across 240,000 miles of space before the invention of the microprocessor. A little government bureaucracy wasn’t going to stop them.

THERE ARE 4 MILLION musty boxes at the Washington National Records Center, a squat brick building in Suitland, Maryland, that’s been housing inactive federal records since 1967. The boxes are stacked on gray girders that rise about 20 feet and would cover the equivalent of 14 football fields of cold concrete bunkers. “We have income tax records, passport applications, patent records, trademark records,” says Alan Kramer, division director at the center. “And we have records from NASA, too.”

The building grows more crowded every day. In 1950, the federal records totaled 45,000 cubic feet. Today they cover 25 million, and bureaucrats add more than 500,000 cubic feet every year. Digital migration was supposed to lighten the load. It hasn’t. “People don’t trust computers, so they print out everything,” Kramer says.

When the search for the Apollo tapes began, Nafzger, Lebar, Wood, and their crew of enthusiastic Apollo vets knew their journey would start here. They hoped it would end here as well. Nafzger had unearthed a tracking document that showed the boxes going from the Goddard Space Flight Center to the National Records Center in the fall of 1969, a few months after the flight.

While sympathetic clerks looked the other way, Lebar and Nafzger waded into the Records Center. But they quickly discovered the government’s data storage system is a shambles. “There are no people who have any idea what’s there,” Nafzger says. There’s no barcoding or computerized tracking; when a box is checked out, the only record of its removal is a sheet of paper placed loosely on the shelf in its place. The placeholders can sit there yellowing for decades – assuming they don’t fall behind the stacks. “That happens,” Kramer says matter-of-factly.

So do s. In July, the sprinkler system went haywire, soaking 16,000 boxes. The damaged goods had to be shipped off to be freeze-dried. Permanent records are kept at a constant temperature and humidity, but time still does not serve cardboard well. Boxes, stacked 14 feet high and two columns deep, peel and rot. It’s hardly the conditions you’d want for your old Mad magazines, let alone the original tapes of the moonwalk.

After schmoozing his way into the stacks and sifting through boxes for months, Lebar found evidence that more than 140,000 tapes from the Apollo era had been checked out of the Records Center between 1979 and 1985 and sent back to the Goddard Space Flight Center. But from there, Lebar fell straight into a black hole. At Goddard, there was no record of where the footage had gone. So the tape hunters hit the phones and the Net, scouring the globe for Goddard retirees who might recall the boxes. It didn’t go well. “We’re dealing with memories here,” Nafzger says, “and those are pretty frail.”

Goddard’s deputy director, Dolly Perkins, admits that there’s no central administrator or database to track what comes into and out of NASA. It’s the domain of each NASA facility to “make decisions about what’s valuable or not,” Perkins says. That means the boxes can come out of the Records Center and sit in someone’s office forever – or be decommissioned and trashed.

Then Wood got a good tip. Some of his sources recalled sending 14-inch magnetic reels to a storage area in a building called Goddard Corporate Park. “I thought I’d hit the mother lode,” Wood says.

He was wrong. Wood soon discovered that storage facility had been closed for years. “Nearly all the stuff that was there was destroyed,” he says. Then he hesitates. “I need to be careful here. Would you cross out the word destroyed?”

It was also possible that the tapes were “degaussed” – erased so they could be used again, a fairly standard practice at the time. In short, no one knows what became of these priceless minutes of historic footage. It’s a sad and confusing result, fitting for NASA. Once, the moon landing seemed like the prelude to all our sci-fi made real. The manned conquest of the solar system would surely follow. But budgets and ambitions have been scaled back so drastically that even the precious data logged during the golden age of space exploration may be lost forever.

Part of the problem was Cold War secrecy: Many key technological innovations of the space program were purposely destroyed so they would never fall into the wrong hands, but most of the loss can be attributed to more mundane issues, like poor record keeping, outdated storage systems, and mortality. In 1999, Joe Miller, a USC neurobiologist investigating microbial life on Mars, asked to see tapes from the ’70s Viking probe – only to discover that NASA hadn’t maintained official archives. “The programmers who knew the format had died,” Miller says. (Luckily, the original investigators had saved hard copies.)

IN OCTOBER 2006, Lebar and Nafzger visit the Data Evaluation Lab. It’s about to be shut down as a cost-cutting measure. Floor tiles are missing, gutted computers are everywhere, and intestine-like coils of electrical cables burst from the ground. “Anything hot in here?” Nafzger asks as he steps gingerly over a wire, his necktie flapping against his short-sleeved button-down shirt.

They show me the analog recorder, the last link to the original data. This device was slated for the scrap heap as well. But thanks to the persistent pestering of the old Apollo vets, the device and the facility will be spared for the duration of the search. Nafzger is holding out hope that the tapes will surface. If and when they do, they’ll be looped through the machines – and history, once and for all, will be properly preserved. In the meantime, he’ll keep firing up the recorder every couple of weeks to make sure it still functions. “If you don’t allow it to work once in a while,” Nafzger says, “it will die.”

Halfway across the world in Australia, Mackellar is keeping the faith. “I’ve prayed for the tapes to be found,” he confesses in a late-night email. “Obviously, I would like to see the better TV image – and I know that those who worked hard to get the pictures from the moon would be delighted to see what they have missed all these years. But I’m praying for something more than that – that somehow this whole thing may help the men and women who think about this to reflect on their own mortality. The tapes won’t last forever – and neither will our lives on this earth.”

NASA now officially acknowledges that the tapes are missing and has given Nafzger permission to spend part of his workday searching for them. They may yet turn up: Scores of reels of telemetry data from lunar-surface experiments were recently uncovered in a basement at Curtin University of Technology in Perth, Western Australia. In the meantime, the agency considers Apollo 11 a job well done. “We, as citizens, will be disappointed if we cannot find the tapes,” Perkins says. “But NASA met the requirement of the mission.”