Houston, We Erased The Apollo 11 Tapes After failing to find the originals, NASA refurbished the existing footage with help from Hollywood.
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Houston, We Erased The Apollo 11 Tapes

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Houston, We Erased The Apollo 11 Tapes

Houston, We Erased The Apollo 11 Tapes

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Forty years ago today, three astronauts blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. They were beginning the historic Apollo 11 mission, the first manned voyage ever to reach the surface of the moon.

Mr. NEIL ARMSTRONG (Astronaut): It's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

INSKEEP: Hundreds of millions of people watched on television as Neil Armstrong took that first step. But the pictures that people saw were dark and fuzzy. The astronauts actually sent back better images - higher-quality footage that was recorded by engineers on earth.

But three years ago, NPR reported that those original tapes were missing. Our report helped to trigger an exhaustive search by NASA. And NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce recently got an exclusive sneak peek at the 1969 moonwalk like you have never seen it before.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Stan Lebar is almost 84 years old. Decades ago, he led a team that designed and built a TV camera that is currently on the moon, right where the Apollo 11 astronauts left it. Lebar says his camera actually captured better images of their moonwalk than people saw on TV.

Mr. STAN LEBAR: It was better. We knew it was better.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But the lunar camera recorded in an odd format that was incompatible with the normal TV format. So when the footage was received on Earth, it had to be converted for broadcast. The conversion degraded the image.

However, engineers on the ground did record the unconverted raw footage onto tapes. Lebar and some colleagues recently decided to go back and look at those tapes.

Mr. LEBAR: The whole thing started with the idea that this is the one piece of television footage that's going to be played for the next 50 or 100 or 300 years. Those that follow us deserve better than what we had.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But the tapes were missing. For the last three years, a monumental search has been underway.

Mr. LEBAR: We had hundreds and hundreds of leads coming to us during this period. Every one of them was investigated.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Lebar and other searchers spent hours and hours in a vast government storage facility known as the Washington National Records Center, something that sounds like the giant warehouse at the end of the movie "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

Mr. DICK NAFZGER (TV Specialist, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center): Stacked with racks of documents, tapes, all kinds of things from NASA and other agencies.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Dick Nafzger is a TV specialist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. He became the unofficial leader of the search team. He says they also went to remote storage facilities, to private homes. They poured over log books and memos and all kinds of 40-year-old handwritten records.

Mr. NAFZGER: We went through old file cabinets that would have little record cards, and it gave you an idea if a shipment went in with the name Apollo on it, and did it have Apollo or tape, or did it have anything on there that could be a tape.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: They returned again and again to that vast government warehouse. But then they discovered something disturbing: Over the years, NASA had removed massive numbers of magnetic tapes from the shelves. Between 1981 to 1983, NASA permanently withdrew over 40,000 boxes. Why? Lebar says new satellites had gone up. The satellites were producing a lot of data that needed to be recorded.

Mr. LEBAR: These satellites were suddenly using tapes seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And the agency was experiencing a critical shortage of magnetic tapes. So, NASA started erasing old ones and reusing them. That's probably what happened to the original footage from the moon that the astronauts took with Lebar's camera.

Mr. LEBAR: So, I don't believe that the tapes exist today at all.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I mean, are you sad about that?

Mr. LEBAR: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEBAR: Well, it was a hard thing to accept, but there was just an overwhelming amount of evidence that led us to believe that they just don't exist anymore. And you have to accept reality.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: You may have to accept reality, but that doesn't mean you have to give into it. Nafzger says, look, they started his search with one goal.

Mr. NAFZGER: Our goal was to provide to the world the best possible video of a historic event we could for the future.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Since the raw footage was gone, the team decided to try to find the best of what was preserved in the converted broadcast format. Nafzger says they looked through tapes in Australia, tapes in the CBS News archive, stuff no one had looked at in decades.

Mr. NAFZGER: We found immediately that just because it was broadcast didn't mean it was similar quality, that the quality of broadcast TV in the existence in 1969 broadcast TV was varied extremely between sources.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Using all of these sources, they pieced together the best possible version of the moonwalk. And then, to make it even better, they turned to the magic of Hollywood.

Mr. NAFZGER: We had been in contact at that point with a company called Lowry Digital in California.

Mr. JOHN LOWRY (Founder, Lowry Digital): They contacted me at Lowry Digital here in Burbank with the objective of can this material be restored.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: John Lowry has a lot of experience doing high-quality digital restorations of old films.

Mr. LOWRY: Such as old "Bambi," "Cinderella," "Lady and the Tramp," 20 James Bond movies.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And the "Star Wars" films, just to name a few.

Early in his career, Lowry had actually worked on footage from later Apollo missions, so he was excited to have the chance to work on the first moonwalk. Over a hundred computers processed the images, carefully removing things like random noise and camera shake without destroying the images' historical legitimacy.

Mr. LOWRY: We've got to very, very mindful of history. If you want to go to the extreme, you could take these images and completely recreate them. You could create a three-dimensional model of the lunar lander and you could make it look beautiful. But I don't think that's the point. I think the point is that Apollo 11 was a very, very special historical event.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Last week, at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Dick Nafzger sat down at a computer loaded with the restored video, which he'd just received from California the day before. He called up a side-by-side comparison of the old and new. On the left side of his monitor was the dark, murky footage of Neil Armstrong coming down the ladder of his LEM spacecraft, about to make his first step.

Mr. NAFZGER: As you can see on the left, there's nothing but a dark image and possibly a foot. If I told you it was a foot, you'd probably say, okay, it must be a foot.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: On the right hand of his screen was the new version.

MR. NAFZGER: You can see the structure of the LEM. You can see his full outline of his body and his helmet, a reflection in his helmet. It's still not pristine. It's not clean and detailed, but it's now an astronaut, and it's something no one saw before. This is the first step on the moon.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The restoration won't be complete until the fall. But NASA is releasing some short clips today to mark the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 blasting off of earth towards its moment in history.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

INSKEEP: Anytime you're in front of a computer today, you can see the restored video of the moonwalk by going to npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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