Date: April 9, 2010
Title: NASA’s Basement Tapes
Podcaster: Bob Hirshon, AAAS
Organization: American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) – www.aaas.org
Description: NASA scientists are painstakingly retrieving data from historic space missions in the 1960s, and the results are yielding valuable new insights into the origins of our solar system and the future of earth’s climate. But it was all just a hair’s breadth from being lost forever.
Bio: Bob Hirshon is Senior Project Director at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and host of the daily radio show and podcast Science Update. Now in its 23rd year, Science Update is heard on over 300 commercial stations nationwide. Hirshon also heads up Kinetic City, including the Peabody Award winning children’s radio drama, McGraw-Hill book series and Codie Award winning website and education program. He oversees the Science NetLinks project for K-12 science teachers, part of the Verizon Foundation Thinkfinity partnership. Hirshon is a Computerworld/Smithsonian Hero for a New Millenium laureate.
Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by the Education and Outreach team for the MESSENGER mission to planet Mercury. Follow the mission as the spacecraft helps to unlock the secrets of the inner solar system at www.messenger-education.org (sponsored by the AAAS)
Welcome to the 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast. I’m Bob Hirshon, host of the Science Update radio show and podcasts. Today, we are setting the wayback machine to August of 1966. The radio was playing Wild Thing by the Troggs and You Can’t Hurry Love by the Supremes; space buffs were riveted by the succession of Gemini flights, which featured the first space walks and docking between two vehicles in orbit; and quietly, a spacecraft called Lunar Orbiter was mapping the surface of the moon with precision instruments. Over the next year, a succession of seven Lunar Orbiter spacecraft mapped nearly 99% of the moon’s surface. The resolution of these images was one meter per pixel—nearly as high res as the images produced by today’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. The information was critical for the planning of the Apollo mission to the moon.
But over the years, and decades, the data collected by Lunar Orbiter was supplanted by images from newer flights. NASA began recycling old data tapes and giving away the refrigerator sized tape machines that played them. Some were dumped in the ocean, in an effort to build coral reefs.
Presumably, that was the end of the Lunar Orbiter data—not to mention all the other data gathered and stored on those machines. Then, in 2007, engineer Dennis Wingo received an intriguing bit of information in an Internet chat room.
A fellow had mentioned that there was this retired scientist from NASA JPL, her name is Nancy Evans, who had these tape drives that could read these original master tapes and that she’d been unable to get the project going and get it funded, and she was retiring from her second career as a veterinarian and was asking whether there was anyone out there who would like to have the tape drives and pick up the standard and try to make this happen.
It turns out that those tape drives are a government variation of some commercial hardware from Ampex Corporation that I had worked on in the 1980s, so I went “Oh, I probably can do this.” And got in touch with her and she gave us the drives and everything else is history.
Evans had also rescued 1500 Lunar Orbiter master tapes in the 1980s, and had them stored in a temperature-controlled warehouse at JPL. Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to house the tape drives in similar fashion.
Nancy actually kept the tape drives in a barn behind her house which is a horse park area north of Los Angeles. And that’s where they sat for 16 years, gathering dust.
Wingo and his colleagues retrieved all four of the tape drives and brought them to an abandoned McDonalds restaurant on the JPL campus. There, they worked painstakingly to restore one of the drives to better than mint condition.
NASA funded a refurbishing effort and we did things like we had all the bearings replaced in the motors themselves, new heads and replaced all the rubber and did a tremendous amount of work and even some re-design of some of the original system parts to get it back functional again.
Why was NASA so interested in this antique data set? Well, by comparing areas of the moon’s surface in 1966 to the same areas today, they can look for new craters, which tells them how frequently asteroids hit the surface in different spots. And that information is critical for any future missions to the moon involving humans.
Wingo says they can also add an additional data set: data collected by seismographs placed on the moon by Apollo astronauts. That information helps record asteroid strikes that occurred after Lunar Orbiter. Having a record of the surface before those strikes helps researchers match the seismic event to the crater that it formed.
The images also help researchers figure out how craters darken as they age, and that can help them determine the ages of other craters.
So, how is the work going?
Well, what we’re doing now is we’re processing images and trying to keep the machines running and dealing with the issues that arise when you’re trying to keep 40-something year old hardware running. We’re processing images, we’re putting images out, we have delivered some to the Planetary Data System and we are working through all of that out right now.
And they’ve also turned their attention to a new, even older data set: images of the earth, taken by the three Nimbus spacecraft between 1964 and 1969. Those images are a treasure trove for scientists studying earth’s climate.
We’re working with Dr. Walt Meyer at the National Snow and Ice Data Center to develop this data for looking at the edges of the Arctic and Antarctic ice pack. But these also have applications towards looking at hurricanes, looking at climate change, just all… there’s a plethora of things this information is valuable for, again as a time capsule 40 years back in time of the state of the earth, and its climate system. 1964 was Nimbus 1, 1966 was Nimbus 2, and 1969 was Nimbus 3 and Nimbus 3 actually has a record of the development and path of Hurricane Camille, which before Hurricane Katrina was the most powerful and damaging storm to hit the continental United States.
Wingo and his colleagues are putting the Nimbus images in Google Earth format, so they can be viewed in Google Earth and combined with other data sets stored there.
We’ve actually been able to conclusively identify five typhoons in the Pacific ocean that were active at that time, and actually have been able to—and this is what we thought was so much fun—we found the Japanese database where they had actually done the physical track of all these typhoons at that time in 1966 and they were also in Google Earth format. And so we took our data and overlaid their data and have a composite data set that could be valuable to hurricane researchers—hurricane and typhoon researchers—and these are disparate researchers working in different areas of the world to come to very similar conclusions and it’s really what we think is using Google Earth as a collaborative scientific tool for earth resources and earth climate change type research.
But while the Lunar Orbiter and Nimbus data restoration projects have been unqualified successes, Wingo says countless other data sets have been lost forever, and many more are on the verge of being lost.
For example, we went to the National Archives ourselves looking for data, and we found 247 commercial videotapes that are of incredible historical importance to Apollo. We found another 240 tapes of test video from the Marshall Space Flight Center that chronicles the development of the space shuttle and some of the Apollo work on the test sands there and literally after this year, we will no longer be able to read any of this data, because the very last people in the world that work on this kind of hardware are retiring and when they retire, the ability to read it is gone.
He says it’s not even likely that the machines could be somehow built in the future, because both the expertise and the raw materials will be unavailable.
Well, there’s nobody making the heads anymore. There’s one place in the world that still refurbishes these heads. And when that guy retires—and he’s retiring this year—when he retires the ability to refurbish these heads, and even the people that make the material for the heads, that technology is going away, because it was like a formulation, it was a magnesium iron alloy, and there’s only one place in the world that still makes that alloy that formed the blanks for the magnetic tips for the heads. And when that’s gone, it’s gone.
Wingo is hoping that someone will pony up the $300,000 it would take to restore those videotapes. And what about all this new data he and his colleagues are generating? Is that likely to become obsolete? Well, not if they can help it: He says they’re storing all of the digital data on the NASA Planetary Data System, which is a cloud server with multiple backups. And they’re also storing all the raw analog data, along with detailed instructions on how to recover the images.
For the 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast, I’m Bob Hirshon.
End of podcast:
365 Days of Astronomy
The 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast is produced by the Astrosphere New Media Association. Audio post-production by Preston Gibson. Bandwidth donated by libsyn.com and wizzard media. Web design by Clockwork Active Media Systems. You may reproduce and distribute this audio for non-commercial purposes. Please consider supporting the podcast with a few dollars (or Euros!). Visit us on the web at 365DaysOfAstronomy.org or email us at info@365DaysOfAstronomy.org. Until tomorrow…goodbye.