They were nearly thrown out with the rubbish. But a last minute search instead has scientists in Western Australia dusting off several boxes of ‘lost’ NASA tapes which record surface conditions on the Moon just after Neil Armstrong stepped into space history on 21 July 1969.
After addressing Earth, the American astronaut set up a package of scientific instruments, including a dust detector designed by an Australian physicist. The data collected by the detector was sent back to ground stations on Earth and recorded on magnetic tapes – copies of which are as rare as the ‘misplaced’ original video footage of the 1969 touchdown.
Last week, up to 100 tapes, clearly marked “NASA Manned Space Center”, turned up after a search in a dusty basement of a physics lecture hall at Curtin University of Technology in Perth, Western Australia. One of the old tapes has been sent to the American space agency to see whether it can be deciphered and ‘stripped’ of any important data which may have survived the ravages of time.
The data are a daily record of the environmental conditions and changes taking place at the lunar site after the Eagle landed safely in the Sea of Tranquility. The most important data were collected after the lunar module blasted off the surface later that day, leaving the still-running instrumentation behind.
The information showed that scientific instruments could be affected by setting them up around landing or take-off sites. They also proved that NASA did go to the Moon.
The data represented, “the only long-term information on the lunar surface environment, and as such are ideal for planning future lunar missions,” according to NASA’s website.
The “Early Apollo Scientific Experiment Package” (EASEP) deployed by Armstrong and Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin – a member of the Cosmos editorial advisory board – consisted of several self-contained experiments including temperature and seismic activity gauges and a small dust detector designed by Sydney-born physicist and environmental consultant Brian O’Brien, 72, who now lives in Perth.
The EASEP tool kit was the forerunner of other experimental instrument packages used on the Apollo missions. It was unplugged on 3 August 1969, having survived the harsh lunar conditions despite, in NASA’s words, “operating temperatures which exceeded the planned maximum by 30 degrees Celsius”. The EASEP instruments were activated again the following day, but by August 27, the experiment was terminated when it stopped responding to commands from Earth ground stations.
At the time, O’Brien believed lunar dust thrown up by the ascending NASA module would affect the instruments left on the Moon. He thought that lunar dust could settle on and ruin some of the experiments, which is, in fact, what happened.
Future moon dust experiments set up the equipment further away from the lunar modules, and carried glass-covered solar cells to reduce the impact of dust accumulating on the instrumentation.
On Apollo 11, the dust detector was attached to the seismometer unit. O’Brien’s Lunar Dust Detector Experiment (also called the Dust, Thermal and Radiation Engineering Measurements Package) was designed to assess long term effects of the lunar surface environment on silicon solar cells used on the Apollo missions.
This was achieved by measuring the dips in power supply caused by high-energy cosmic particles, ultraviolet radiation and dust and debris, the data also having implications for the health and safety of astronauts exposed to extraterrestrial conditions.
The re-discovery of the magnetic tapes at Curtin follows NASA’s admission in August this year that it no longer knew where to find the original video tapes of the 1969 landing and Armstrong’s famous speech to at least 600 million people around the world.
The originals were recorded at three tracking stations – one in the U.S. and two in Australia at Honeysuckle Creek tracking station in the Australian Capital Territory and Parkes radio telescope in central-western New South Wales. Recorded on telemetry tapes, they are said to be the best quality images of the landing (unconverted slow scan TV) yet to be seen by a public still fascinated by the early space race. These tapes were mislaid in the early 1980s on their way to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt, Maryland.
O’Brien brought his data tapes to WA when he left the University of Sydney to head up the state’s first Environmental Protection Authority. He placed the tapes in the safe hands of Curtin colleague John de Laeter, emeritus professor of applied physics, whose office is now a temporary home to some of the 28 centimetre-diameter tapes.
When I visited de Laeter’s office to view the tapes, they looked new, but their age was given away by the fading labels on the plastic covers that detailed in handwritten pen the date and particulars of the lunar surface recordings.
The first 25 years of their storage life at Curtin was in a closet-sized store room in a small marine science laboratory in the main physics building. They were later moved to bigger premises under the lecture hall where they have languished underneath the seats of countless physics students for years.
O’Brien decided to go looking for the tapes after reading about mislaid television tapes that NASA and Australian scientists are still looking for.
At first, one box of O’Brien’s old tapes was found. Then, a second search last week by de Laeter, O’Brien and a laboratory manager turned up the rest of the boxed tapes just as the searchers were about to give up. The tapes were almost obscured under outdated electronic equipment which the men had to move.
O’Brien was unavailable for comment.
Read Buzz Aldrin’s account of what it’s like to walk on the Moon here.