Tuesday, August 15, 2006

V: One Small Misstep?

Guest blogger V is back with his commentary on the recent revelation that NASA has lost the tapes of the original moon landing:
So an American news agency, CNN, finally reports on August 14th that the original (high quality) tapes of the first moon landing have been misplaced, and possibly lost, by NASA. It made me sad when I first read about this on August 5th, in a report by the Sydney Morning Herald. It makes me more upset now when I read the spin on this by NASA. Here is one quote from the CNN article: "I wouldn't say we're worried -- we've got all the data. Everything on the tapes we have in one form or another." However, it is not clear that the same quality of data has been archived; indeed reading between the lines of both articles, it appears that only the TV broadcast tapes have been preserved and that there is no systematic copy or backup of all the original data. Also from the CNN article: Hautaloma said it is possible the tapes will be unplayable even if they are found, because they have degraded significantly over the years -- a problem common to magnetic tape and other types of recordable media.

First of all, I wasn’t even aware that the television broadcast of the first moon landing was a significantly degraded version of what the tracking centers received from Apollo 11. Apparently, due to the discrepancy between NASA’s equipment and the TV technology of the day, the original transmission had to be displayed on screens and re-shot by TV cameras for transmission. The original images were reportedly of a very good quality and much sharper than the blurry ones seen by the world. Those facts, in and of themselves, are fascinating to me. What is truly mystifying is the apparent lack of any concerted effort to preserve the integrity of the original tapes or to transfer the original high quality data to some other contemporary/enduring medium or form.

I have thought about this story for the past few days, in an effort to understand why it is so upsetting to me. I didn’t see the broadcast live and was too young in 1969 to have appreciated it anyways. But growing up abroad, if you asked me to pick one thing that represented America to me---one image---one event---it would be the moment man walked on the moon. Those images still give me goose bumps. They still, and will always, remain some of the most inspirational images I have ever seen. It may just be me, but I don’t quite think so. I think that for millions of my generation (and the preceding ones) the moon landing redefined frontiers by blowing through mental limits on human achievement. For millions of foreigners like me (and, I believe, for millions of Americans too) it encapsulated in a single swift moment, more than any other American event, the idea that America was the land of infinite possibilities and of limitless potential.

The loss of the original tapes and data is tragic, from a scientific perspective as well as a historical one. Also, how decadent is it that we have generated more initiative to preserve tapes of the first Super Bowl (1967) than we have to preserve the original data of the first human footsteps on the moon? At the very least NASA could have turned the darned tapes over to Steve Sabol---you know he’d have done a good job with them. And who better than "The Voice of God" for that voiceover...I can almost hear John Facenda now, "As Armstrong stepped onto the frozen tundra of the Sea of Tranquility..."
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