Senior Expert in Emerging Technology
I came across a new type of archaeology this last week while researching topics for the column and I was fascinated by the prospect. Digital archaeology is the recovery of historical data from computing systems that are no longer available. I can probably give many of you a personal example. If you are anything like me you probably have a desk drawer or file box full of floppy disks, VHS tapes and CDs. You might find it surprising that I added CDs to the list, but even they are becoming obsolete. I have not had a computer capable of reading the floppy disks for about 10 years now, but I still have the disks. Digital archaeology involves reading the data off of those disks, to see what I lost from the past. In my case it is nothing too interesting, except maybe a few bitcoin from more than a decade ago.
The reason I bring up the topic is that a group of digital archaeologists uncovered a mystery on 70mm tapes from the late 1960s. The group was originally hired by NASA and leased a run-down McDonald’s neighboring the NASA Ames Research Park and Moffett Field, Calif. The building became known as Building 596. The group was running a project officially named MoonViews, and the group adopted the name McMoons due to their location. The group began with attempting to find any lost information on the Lunar Missions and came across a set of 70mm tapes containing images from the three Lunar Orbiter Project missions. Between 1967 and 1968 NASA sent three Orbiters to take high resolution photos of the moon’s surface in preparation for the manned mission to the moon. Until reading about this project, I did not know anything about the Lunar Orbiter Project, and I am sure neither did a lot of people in the world.
The tapes were supposed to be scrapped back in 1986, but NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory archivist Nancy Evans stated, “I could not morally get rid of this stuff,”and chose to store the tapes on her personal property. Over the years she also collected parts and components from the highly specialized Ampex FR-900 tape drives. These specialty drives were only used by government agencies such as the FAA, USAF, and NASA. The FR-900’s used a custom transport mechanism based off of a two-inch Quadruplex videotape format, but repurposed to record wide-band analog signals from instrumentation rather than the stand video signals. Over time Nancy Evans and a few colleagues were able to gather enough components, user’s guides and documentation to reconstruct the software necessary to read the images.
It did not take long for the group to successfully read the raw analog data from the tapes and create the initial archive before the tapes deteriorated beyond readability and the images were lost forever, but they needed specialized demodulation hardware that had been used to store the image data in the raw format. Unfortunately this demodulator no longer existed. It took the group from 2004-2009 before they were able to view the first image from the tapes. The image, or the crater Copernicus from the Lunar Orbiter 2 spacecraft taken on November 24, 1966, was called “one of the great pictures of the century” by NASA Scientist Martin Swetnick when a low resolution copy of the image was published in Time Magazine in 1966. One month later the group had recovered over 30 images which are now the highest resolution images of the moon ever captured. All the images are available on the National Archives at https://catalog.archives.gov/id/77811149.
Until next week, stay safe and learn something new.
Scott Hamilton is a Senior Expert in Emerging Technologies at ATOS and can be reached with questions and comments via email to firstname.lastname@example.org or through his website at https://www.techshepherd.org.