Film Preservation: Too Important to be Left to Rocket Scientists
The new ship looks not unlike the old Apollo moonship might appear if it had spent its 30 years of retirement eating the modern American diet of high fructose corn syrup, corn chips, and beef fattened with cow parts and corn. NASA's goal is to get Americans back on the moon, supposedly by 2020. Beyond the obvious question—Why, man, WHY?!?!?—this foolish investment provides us an opportunity to look at why film preservation really matters.
It seems that NASA has mislaid the original videotape recordings of the first moon landing from 1969. It also seems that only a handful of scientists and technicians have seen the actual images transmitted from the moon. What was broadcast to the world was a second-generation copy made by pointing a TV camera at a black-and-white TV monitor showing the original transmission. This is a bit like seeing a photocopy of a photocopy of DaVinci's The Last Supper, or a Pixelvision recording of Fantasia (Walt Disney, 1940).
Video technology in 1969 was primitive. NASA, of course, had access to the best scientists and technicians possible, but they were still subject to the limitations of their time. Transmitting video images over a radio carrier wave using battery power channeled through a one-meter wide antenna from the moon to the earth, a distance of roughly 384,000 miles, is quite a feat. They also had to build a camera that could withstand the environmental extremes of the lunar surface, which has no air, lots of dust, and a temperature range of minus-387 degrees Fahrenheit to plus-253 degrees Fahrenheit. To reduce the amount of data contained in the radio signal, the engineers set the exposure rate at 10 frames per second, and this created the problem that led to the missing tapes.
The American standard video frame rate is just under 30 frames per second, or three times the frame rate of the video feed from the first moon landing. This required a non-standard videotape recorder to capture the actual video feed. While this custom VTR recorded the live images, a standard video camera, capturing 30 frames per second, was pointed at a TV showing what the custom VTR was recording at 10 frames per second. Every frame of the original video was copied approximately three times, without any mechanism ensuring frame or motion integrity. This mistimed, nearly asynchronous second-generation image is what was broadcast around the world and recorded by every TV news team in the world. And it's the only video image the general public (and most NASA employees) have ever seen.
The orbital position of the moon relative to the earth during the landing meant that the radio transmission could be received best by antennae in the southern hemisphere. The Parkes Observatory in Australia is where NASA set up its receiving and transmission station. (The story of the observatory's role in the moon landing is told in the film The Dish from the year 2000.) It's also the only place where the original 10 frames per second footage has ever been seen.
The tapes and the custom VTR made their way back to the U.S., stopping at the National Archives at the Library of Congress before they were sent to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. They were ignored for decades, until someone got the bright idea to “decommission” the custom VTR. Apparently somebody remembered that the original moon landing tapes could only be played on the obsolete deck, and thought clearly enough to strike a new copy to a modern medium before trashing the VTR. When they went to where the tapes were supposed to be, they found nothing.
Unfortunately, this sort of thing happens all the time. Tapes and film reels are mislaid, mislabeled and misappropriated on a regular basis. The significance of this particular set of lost tapes underscores the importance of establishing a system to maintain visual and audio records. The only surviving moving images of one of the most significant events of the 20th century may turn out to be a mistimed, second-generation copy made in the most amateurish fashion imaginable. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to appreciate the magnitude of that loss.
Copyright 2006 by Richard Hildreth. All rights reserved.