Apollo 11 moon landing master tape (lost original SSTV footage; 1969)
On July 20, 1969, the Apollo 11 landing capsule with its crew of two astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, touched down on the moon. The footage has become world famous and will be preserved, most likely, for the entire future of human history as one of the most significant achievements of the species. Therefore it is strange, and not generally known by the public, that NASA has lost their original SSTV tapes of the event.
The journey and landing of Apollo 11 were filmed by the astronauts that went on said mission: Armstrong, Aldrin, and Michael Collins. For the scientific purpose, the experience was recorded on high-quality 16mm film Super-8 camera, that covered the moonwalk from the window of the lunar module. For live pictures to a general audience, the signal from television camera on the surface was broadcast live back to Earth, along with other mission data via a signal encoding known as SSTV. SSTV allows for an image to be embedded into audio data and transmitted as a radio signal. This SSTV signal was picked up on multiple telescopes on earth, one in Goldstone, California, the other one in Parkes, Australia. Additionally, Australia provided a tracking station in Honeysuckle Creek.
Reasons for Loss
At the telescopes facilities, a raw signal with all data telemetry and SSTV images was cloned into two branches: one branch of the signal went straight to a backup tape recorder capable of storing the incoming information at the telescope facility. The other branch immediately proceeded signal and decoded SSTV images that were designated to be shown to the public.
However, as the data coming in from the astronauts' cameras was incompatible with TV image broadcasting standards (namely NTSC), a conversion had to take place. Curiously, this occurred in one of the most primitive ways imaginable; the signal was fed to a high-quality screen, capable of displaying images from the astronauts' cameras. The light emissions from this screen were recorded by a camera, putting out image data compatible with contemporary television sets. The (now TV-friendly) signal then sent from Australia via satellite to Goldstone, California and from there via microwave transmission to the Mission Control Center.
It was then only that an image signal arrived at the Mission Control Center in Houston. Here the signal was distributed further to TV stations. However, the only video from the moon landing broadcast that day was in severely worse quality than what a few technicians could witness at the ground station before any crude conversion took place. In recent years, interest in the original SSTV data recorded at tracking stations Goldstone, Honeysuckle Creek and Parkes has risen. However, after extensive research, no copies of the original image signal, along with mission data, has shown up. According to NASA, it is very likely that the tapes were wiped for reuse, similar to what happened to many TV shows through the late 1970's-early 1980's.
The loss of the Apollo 11 footage has done nothing to quell persistent conspiracy theories claiming that the moon landings were an elaborate hoax and that the footage was filmed in a studio. On subsequent missions of Apollos 12-17 NASA improved quality, and as cameras produced NTSC standard signal, there was no need for conversion. Footage from the subsequent missions have been successfully retained by NASA and as such are available in much higher quality than the Apollo 11 footage. This fact should put to rest any claims that NASA 'conveniently lost' the footage to prevent close analysis of the film, as subsequent landing footage is available for analysis of high quality.
- NPR article on tapes Retrieved Jan '18
- Article on NASA's search and speculation on the status of recordings Retrieved Jan '18