Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Archaeology of the Space Age

In the previous century, our ancestors went to the moon.

They left Earth in antique capsules perched on top of a million pounds of explosives - the largest rockets ever built.

They navigated with wristwatches, slide-rules, and primitive computers with less processing power than a basic cellphone.

And they took pictures. America's first unmanned satellites carried chemical darkrooms on board, where film was developed, translated into radio waves, and beamed back to Earth. On the ground, the satellites' analog photographic data was stored on magnetic tapes.

And then we forgot about them.

The original data for our earliest pictures of the moon, like the one at left, were very nearly lost - the tapes were filed away, and the machines necessary to translate them into images again were discarded as government surplus.

But a few years ago, a team of technological archaeologists, working in an abandoned McDonald's restaurant, recovered the tapes and painstakingly re-constructed the antique equipment required to translate their data into images.

The Apollo-era tape-readers themselves had been saved by a former NASA planetary phtographer, Nancy Evans, who stored several of the wardrobe-sized machines in her garage for decades in the hope that someone, someday, would want to recover the photos.

It's a pretty remarkable project - as though the complete journals of Sir Walter Raleigh had been found written in an obscure Elizabethan code, and the only way to translate the treasure were by refurbishing a heavy cabinet full of derelict gears and pulleys that someone had found in a cobwebbed dungeon of the Tower of London.

The archivists are working not in a museum, but in a defunct burger joint, with the tapes piled on the floor next to the grills, and a pirate flag hanging from the window. In this headquarters of the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project (LOIRP), workers are rehabbing the old machinery with the goal of recovering and digitizing the old images in their original level of detail.

It's a digital archaeological expedition: recovering precious artifacts of the space age, using machines whose operations have been forgotten, in a fast-food ruin.

The Lunar Orbiter missions produced images of extremely fine detail in order to scout landing and exploration sites for the manned missions. In fact, one reason behind the restoration project is because they're still some of the most detailed images we have of the moon's surface, and NASA is interested in going back.

At the time, due to security concerns about revealing the capabilities of American satellites, the public only ever saw second-hand images - photographs of the original photographs. The LOIRP project will not only digitize these landmark images; they'll also make them available to the public for the first time in all their glory.

Above: crew sleeping quarters and tapes in the McDonald's kitchen. Each canister contains one photograph's worth of data. Photo by jurvetson on flickr.

Read more:

NASA: LOIRP images


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