Recovering NASA History in an Abandoned McDonald's


In 1966, NASA's Lunar Orbiter program performed a detailed survey of the moon's surface. The Orbiters mapped the moon in exquisite detail, searching for suitable places that later missions could use as landing sites. The Orbiters sent back their data via an amazingly complex system employing 70mm cameras, optical scanners running in space, analog lossless image compression, and radio transmitters. The data was stored back on Earth on 2,500 reels of 2-inch tape. Where this story gets interesting is what happened to those tapes.

By the 1970s, the tapes were just a mountain of forgotten junk taking up space in storage. When NASA archivist Nancy Evans was asked whether it was okay to destroy the tapes (they were being removed from storage, presumably to free up space), she refused -- and took on the job of preserving them herself. Evans took on the 2,500 reels herself and began a private mission to preserve and read them. But the challenge of actually getting the data off the tapes took her over thirty years: she had to find extremely rare Ampex FR-900 tape drives to read the tapes -- only a few dozen were ever made -- and when she finally located the drives, none of them worked.

By 2005, Evans was retired and frustrated. She had the tapes and a pile of nonfunctional drives, but NASA refused to restore them, estimating repair costs at $6 million. That's when Evans went public with the tapes, and assembled a ragtag crew of space aficionados who managed to restore the machines, process the tapes, and recover the images -- never before seen in their original quality -- all in an abandoned McDonald's donated by NASA (which, to its credit, did eventually fund the project). After the jump, check out an AP video report on the story:

The LA Times has a terrific piece going into much more detail. There's some more information at the Lunar Orbiter site, including photos like the one above of the McDonald's facility used to process the tapes. There's also a good Metafilter thread on the story, with some extra links in the comments.