The Mystery of the Missing Apollo 11 ‘Sea of Tranquility’ Video Tapes

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After the camera recorded the Apollo 11 astronauts' descent onto the moon's surface, they placed it on the moon to record their other activities, beaming images back to Earth by the lunar camera that is still resting on the moon's dusty Sea of Tranquility, right where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left it. Following NPR's reports in 2006 that the video tapes were missing , NASA began a massive search to find the tapes from the lunar camera.


That special lunar camera recorded in an odd format that was incompatible with the format used for broadcast TV. So when the footage was received on Earth back in July of 1969, it had to be converted for the live television broadcast, which degraded the images, and hundreds of millions of TV viewers saw dark, murky pictures.

Those pictures were still thrilling — after all, it was "Live from the Moon!" and a human was walking on another celestial body for the very first time — but some experts knew that the lunar camera was capable of doing better.

Soon after Stan Lebar, who worked at the Westinghouse Electric Corporation and led the team that designed and built the lunar cameras, and colleague Dick Nafzger concluded that the 1-inch magnetic tapes with the original Apollo 11 footage had probably been destroyed, a surprise discovery gave them renewed hope.

"We had hundreds and hundreds of leads coming to us during this period," says Lebar. "Every one of them was investigated."

Old documents were discovered revealed that, unbeknownst to Lebar and Nafzger, the lunar camera's signals had also been recorded on a couple of 2-inch tapes by an experimental program run by the Applied Physics Laboratory near Baltimore.

"This was like a miracle out of nowhere," recalls Lebar in an interview with NPR. "That opened up a whole new search for us with the possibility that maybe this was the savior that we were looking for."

Lebar and others spent hours and hours in a vast government storage facility known as the Washington National Records Center, a place that Lebar compares to the giant warehouse at the end of the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. The team tracked down a former APL employee who confirmed that he'd recorded the moonwalk in 1969 and remembered having those tapes at APL. They obtained a vintage device that could play these tapes, in case they were found. Later, the archivist at APL did find some 2-inch tapes in the right format from that time frame that had no labels. But when Nafzger and Lebar played what they thought were the moonwalk tapes, they were blank, void of content.

The search wasn't limited to that one place — the searchers went everywhere from storage businesses to private homes. They pored through logbooks, memos and all kinds of 40-year-old handwritten records.

The mystery of the missing 2-inch moonwalk tapes loomed ever larger. Were they out there, somewhere, or gone, destroyed for eternity. And Why?

The exhaustive, three-year search for the tapes that contained the original footage of the Apollo 11 moonwalk arrived at the plausible conclusion that they were probably destroyed during a period when NASA was erasing old magnetic tapes and reusing them to record satellite data.

It turns out that new satellites had gone up and were producing a lot of data that needed to be recorded. "These satellites were suddenly using tapes seven days a week, 24 hours a day," says Lebar.The agency was experiencing a critical shortage of magnetic tapes. So NASA started erasing old ones and reusing them."We're all saddened that they're not there. We all wish we had 20-20 hindsight," says Dick Nafzger, now a TV specialist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, who helped lead the search team.

"I don't think anyone in the NASA organization did anything wrong," Nafzger says. "I think it slipped through the cracks, and nobody's happy about it."

"So I don't believe that the tapes exist today at all," says Lebar. "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."

NASA has, however, offered up a consolation prize for the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission — the agency has taken the best available broadcast television footage and contracted with a digital restoration firm to enhance it, so that the public can see the first moonwalk in more detail than ever before.

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The Daily Galaxy via NPR

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