Engineers Are Rescuing Some of the First Photos Ever Taken from Lunar Orbit

The Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project is rebuilding the equipment needed to see these stunning photos

A photo of the Earth taken from lunar orbit in 1966, recovered by the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project. See the full image here Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project / NASA / Ames Research Center

Lost data has been a big problem for NASA. The agency has accidentally wiped out tapes that captured the first Moon walk; lost data from some of the earliest lunar missions when the machines used to read it were dismantled; and almost threw out the original punch card data for the Mariner 6, Mariner 9, Pioneer Venus, and Voyager missions. (An enterprising archivist swept in at the last moment to save the day.)

Now, though, in a converted McDonalds on the campus of NASA's Ames Research Center, a team of hackers and engineers is working to rebuild and retool ancient computer hardware. The team behind the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project, says Doug Bierend for Wired, is using their hacked-together hardware and modern software to save the stunning imagery captured by some of humanity's first robotic jaunts into space.

Between 1966 and ’67, five Lunar Orbiters snapped pictures onto 70mm film from about 30 miles above the moon. The satellites were sent mainly to scout potential landing sites for manned moon missions. Each satellite would point its dual lens Kodak camera at a target, snap a picture, then develop the photograph. High- and low-resolution photos were then scanned into strips called framelets using something akin to an old fax machine reader.

The satellite beamed the photos back to Earth where they were recorded onto tapes, says Bierend. We've seen many of these photos before, but because of the post-processing that had to be done once the photos got back to Earth the versions we've seen had resolutions that were quite poor.

The tapes that recorded the data beamed back to Earth, though, captured the photos in all their glory. Unfortunately, NASA held on to the tapes but tossed out the equipment used to read them. The efforts of the team behind the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project, says Bierand, has so far given 2,000 old photos new life, including the Earthrise photo above, captured in 1966 and re-released a few years ago.

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