DON GONYEA, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
Almost everyone who had access to television watched the first moon landing back in 1969. What most viewers didn't know is they weren't seeing the best images. The astronauts actually beamed higher quality footage back to earth. Those original images were recorded and put into storage somewhere.
NPR's Nell Boyce reports.
NELL BOYCE reporting:
On the night of July 20, 1969, Stan Lebar was 44 years old and sitting in Houston's Mission Control building. His team at Westinghouse Corporation had spent the last five years designing a TV camera that would work in the harsh, lunar environment. He was waiting to see if they'd pulled it off.
Mr. NEIL ARMSTRONG (Astronaut): Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.
BOYCE: Moments after the spacecraft touched down, mission control asked Buzz Aldrin to power up the camera.
Unidentified Man: Buzz, this is Houston, radio check and verify TV circuit breaker in.
Mr. BUZZ ALDRIN (Astronaut): Roger. TV circuit breakers in.
BOYCE: At last, Stan Lebar and his colleagues in the TV lab saw a signal. It was just a line on a screen, but it meant that the camera was working.
Mr. STAN LEBAR (Westinghouse Corporation): That's when we opened the champagne bottles. So we were very pleased with that.
BOYCE: As the first images appeared on a screen in Houston's control room...
Unidentified Man: Roger...
BOYCE: ...the flight directors were thrilled.
Unidentified Man: And we're getting a picture on the TV.
Unidentified Man: You had a good picture, huh?
Unidentified Man: There's a great deal of contrast in it, and currently, it's upside down on our monitor, but we can make out a fair amount of detail.
BOYCE: But back in the TV lab, Stan Lebar says the mood had changed.
Mr. LEBAR: What disturbed us was when we saw the imagery, and we knew that something had gone wrong.
BOYCE: For hundreds of millions of people watching, the picture was amazing. It was live from the moon. But it was hard to make out what was what in the dark, fuzzy scene - something that looks like legs coming down a ladder.
Mr. LEBAR: So they were saying this is great. And the truth of the matter was, it was being degraded something awful.
BOYCE: Lebar explains the images were being degraded because the lunar camera was recording in a format that was incompatible with commercial television broadcasts. Here's what was happening: the lunar camera was sending images to three tracking stations, one in California and two in Australia. At these stations, the original footage could be displayed on a monitor.
Engineers essentially took a commercial television camera and aimed it at the monitor. The resulting image is what got sent to Houston and on to the world.
Mr. RICHARD NAFZGER (TV Specialist, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center): And any time you just point a camera at a screen, that's obviously not the best way to get the best picture.
BOYCE: Richard Nafzger is a TV specialist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. He worked with Apollo's lunar TV program and says that conversion was the best that they could do at the time.
Mr. NAFZGER: We're talking 1969. In today's digital world, it's pretty much a relic. But that's what it was.
BOYCE: The original lunar footage did get recorded onto 14 inch spools of magnetic tape, along with telemetry data. And by 1970, the tapes had made their way to a giant government facility known as the National Records Center in Suitland, Maryland. Soon after that, records show that NASA brought the tapes to Goddard for permanent retention.
Fast forward to April, 2002. Someone who'd worked at one of the Australian tracking stations finds a tape in his garage. He thinks it's a copy he made of the original, high-quality footage. It goes to Goddard.
Mr. NAFZGER: And this door - let me see if it's open. It is, we open it (unintelligible).
BOYCE: The Data Evaluation Lab is full of giant blue cabinets that hold 40-year-old playback machines. Nafzger says it's the only place left that can play NASA tapes from the Apollo era.
Mr. NAFZGER: This is equipment that would process any tapes we'd find of the original television.
BOYCE: As it turned out, the Australian tape wasn't the moonwalk. It was a simulation from 1967. But it made Nafzger and others keen to find the originals.
Mr. NAFZGER: You know, we can give you three, four times - just to pick a number - the quality of what you saw if we located these tapes.
BOYCE: Unfortunately, no one has been able to. Nothing suggests that the tapes were moved from Goddard or destroyed, yet there's also no record of where exactly they're supposed to be.
The data evaluation lab will be shut down in October, but Nafzger will save a few of the machines in case the tapes turn up. He and Stan Lebar are talking with retirees, sorting through old documents and hoping someone will call them with a tip.
Mr. LEBAR: One of the reasons we're fighting so hard is that we're fighting against the clock.
BOYCE: The tapes will degrade over time, and all the people who worked on Apollo aren't getting any younger either. Lebar is now 81 years old. He says in retrospect, the murky images that got broadcast on TV were thrilling. Their strange quality just underlines that this was an unearthly event.
Mr. LEBAR: Walter Cronkite said, you know, it was, it really, it was ghostly like. It was really what it should have been. If it was full up resolution, as standard television, nobody would have thought it was as great.
BOYCE: Still, he would dearly love to see the original footage.
Mr. LEBAR: What do we provide for posterity? When we know there's something better? You would think that you would like to have the best that you can, of any of these things. If we could have that when they stepped on the rock, Plymouth Rock, it would be great. You would not want a fuzzy copy.
BOYCE: Lebar says, at least everyone knows where the camera is. The astronauts traded it for moon rocks. It's still up there in the dusty Sea of Tranquility.
Nell Boyce, NPR News.
Mr. LEBAR: People ask, if they ever bring it back, will it work? My answer is sure, why not?
MONTAGNE: Think you know where the original tapes are? Find out how to submit a tip at our website, npr.org.