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Houston, our tapes have gone missing
Search is on for historic TV footage of mankind's first landing on the Moon
Houston, we have a problem. There is probably no artefact in the history of space exploration more precious than the first television images of the Moon captured by Neil Armstrong and his fellow astronauts as they disembarked from their lunar module in July 1969.
Unfortunately, the magnetic tapes of those images have gone missing. Worse still, they appear to have been missing for at least 30 years - and nobody, until now, even noticed.
The man who devised the lunar camera for the mission, a retired Westinghouse engineer called Stan Lebar, is hoping the tapes can still be recovered somewhere from the bowels of Nasa, the US space agency, or from one of the companies to which Nasa has outsourced its archival storage.
But, after a year of looking, he and a small band of old-timers in the space business have turned up precisely nothing. Their hope is to track the tapes down before they deteriorate so far as to be unreadable, then transfer them to digital format so they can be preserved for ever.
"This is a once-in-the-history-of-mankind kind of thing," a markedly understated Mr Lebar said in a phone interview. "So it's important."
The world is familiar with the fuzzy, grainy footage
of the lunar landscape shown on television screens back in 1969, and repeated
many times since. But that is not what the US astronauts shot - it was a
low-quality reproduction achieved by pointing a television camera at the
monitor beaming back the original images from the lunar mission to tracking
stations in California and Australia.
The high-quality originals were preserved on telemetry tape, but were never actually broadcast. Instead, they were sent from Nasa's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland to the nearby US National Archives and Records Administration (Nara). Sometime in the mid-1970s, Goddard reclaimed the tapes, part of a hoard of more than 2,600 tapes that it wanted for "permanent retention". And then they vanished into the bureaucratic ether.
Some similar tapes showed up in Australia a couple of years ago, but turned out to be test-run tapes for the Apollo 9 mission. That was when Mr Lebar and a colleague at Goddard, Dick Nefzger, decided they would launch a full-scale hunt for the more valuable tapes. First, they hunted through Nara, only to satisfy themselves after five months that the tapes weren't there.
Now they are going through the list of retired former Nasa employees, by department, in the hope of finding someone who remembers where the tapes were sent, or even someone who can explain the bureaucratic protocols of the time so that they can make an educated guess.
Last month, Mr Lebar and his friends issued a flyer appealing for help, but they have received no responses so far.
"It's going to take a deep search," Mr Lebar said.
Until now, they have kept the story out of the press because, they say, they do not want to embarrass Nasa. They insist it is wrong to characterise the tapes as "missing". "They're not missing," Mr Lebar said, "we just haven't found them."