The Missing Past and Short Attention Spans: A Space Odyssey

July 16, 2009 | By | 3 Replies More

Stan Lebar worked for Westinghouse in the 1960s.  He led the developmental team that produced a state-of-the-art camera for NASA—the camera that was taken to the moon on Apollo 11 and recorded the first moonwalk.  Most people have seen those images, many times—grainy, fuzzy black & white pictures of something that looks kind of like an astronaut slowly descending something that kind of looks like a ladder on the side of a large object that we are told is the lander. 

Whatever.  We suffered through these scenes, probably many of us annoyed at the quality, impatient that better pictures weren’t available.  (Better still pictures became available, shot with specially-made Hasselblads, that remain absolutely stunning in clarity and detail, so made up for the sub par video, at least for some of us.)  After all, even Hollywood, using by today’s standards primitive technology, could create vastly superior space vistas—compare the images from the 1966 film 2001: A Space Odyssey with the NASA footage from a few years later and you grasp the disappointment.

(It has long been my opinion that support for the space program waned because NASA managed to take something as exciting and sexy as space exploration and turn it into the equivalent of a lecture on statistics.  The late, great science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein chastised NASA at Congressional hearings for not doing more P.R., better P.R.  When he was told that the government didn’t do P.R., he had further things to say about campaigns and such like and then pointed out “NASA has a press department, doesn’t it?  That’s the job of the press department.”  Anyway…)

The camera built by Mr. Lebar’s team was far superior to the poor images we all saw—and continue to see.  The recording medium, however, was incompatible with broadcast television at the time.  The images had to be transferred to a compatible medium, which caused considerable degradation.  But the original footage was recorded on magnetic tape and stored for a future time with better technology could do a proper job of translation.

It turns out, NASA probably erased those tapes.  A three-year search has led to the conclusion that those tapes, along with 40,000 others, were returned to use for later satellite data recording programs.

The originals of the moon landing are gone.

America has had a long and tortured history of ignoring its history, overwriting it, paving it over, tearing it down.  We have always been in love with the future in one way or another and preservation of what went before leaves people hungry for novelty and next week impatient.  History-rich buildings fall to the wrecking ball to make room for vastly less significant structures that may have a 20 year life span themselves.  The Library of Congress is working desperately to transfer pages of books that are turning to dust before our eyes to more permanent media, but funding is always a problem because in general we don’t see the use.  The new demands the space the old appears to take up.

We’re a bit better about it now.  Back in the Old Days, when we tend to think of people as having been more conscious of the past and history—because those people themselves are part of a history we’d like to ignore—it was actually worse.

Thomas Addis Emmet, a New York physician in the 19th Century, recorded the following in his memoirs, Incidents of My Life , published in 1911:

Shortly after the beginning of the Civil War one of my patients…and wife of one of the assistant secretaries in Washington, returned home for a visit.  When she came back to me she showed me a dozen or more letters, written by Washington, Franklin, and several other well-known officers, written chiefly from the winter quarters at Valley Forge.  I expressed my surprise that she should have them, as they all related to the public service and belonged in the Government archives.  She told me that on her way to the Capitol a few days before she had to pass between a dozen or more tobacco hogsheads filled with papers so that they hung over the sides.  Seeing the name of Washington on a letter, she asked the foreman of some work going on it she could have it.  She was told yes, and that she might take as many as she wished as it was a lot of rubbish which was to be destroyed.  I immediately wrote to her husband and learned from him that in making room in the basement of the Capitol for a bakery, to bake bread for the Army in the neighborhood, these hogsheads of papers had been removed and, on the report that the papers were of no importance, they were all one night dumped into the Potomac River.  On further investigation it was found that these were the Government archives which Mr. Madison, as President, had hastily packed in these hogsheads when the English were advancing on Washington during the War of 1812, and were sent into the country for their preservation.  After the English had burned the city and had been driven off, these papers were brought back to Washington, and when the Capitol had been rebuilt they had been temporarily stored in one of the basement rooms and had been forgotten!

Few missed them, certainly whoever pronounced them unimportant had no sense of history, and after all, room had to be made for bread!  The Army must eat!

Our sense of our own past is a relatively new national phenomenon, and one poorly promulgated, for too much of it is little more than the recycling of myths that survived the destruction of actual documentation, which was conveniently lost.  As example, look at the veneration in which so many people hold the Founding Fathers, and yet mostly without a clue what they actually did.  When confronted with contemporary evidence of their contrariness, their partisanship, their ethical shortcomings—in other words, their bone-marrow deep humanness—many people get angry, as if you are insulting someone of Biblical importance.  The only thing that acts as tonic to such hagiography would be the record from the times, and much of that is lost or ignored.

But we are getting better.  And in the case of the missing moon tapes, what we have available—those substandard, grainy images—are going through a facelift.  Lowry Digital of Burbank California has produced restored images for NASA.  Using over a 100 computers, they have cleaned out the noise, put detail back in, produced better contrast in the images, and brought back the richness of the originals—-to an extent.  When they reached the point of having to guess what should be there, they stopped.  It would be possible to produce a flawless representation—and maybe, as a future project, they will—but that would not necessarily be accurate.  They’ve done an archaeological reconstruction.

As for the missing tapes, they’re holding out some hope that somewhere they may still exist, but it’s doubtful.  Still, they didn’t get thrown into the Potomac and the data still exists.

To be sure, deciding what to save is a complex, difficult task.  Not everything is valuable, at least not equally valuable to others pieces of information.  And there is the small problem of where to store it and how to access it.  We could easily swing all the way into the other direction in an attempt to save absolutely everything.  Hogsheads of papers and tapes and CDs could fill every available space, and we would drown in the river of too damn much information., information that becomes, by virtue of its bulk, noise.

But really—losing the first moon landing?  Saving those tapes should have been a no-brainer.


Category: American Culture, Communication, computers, Culture, Current Events, History, ignorance, Media, Noteworthy, Science

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (3)

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  1. Thanks for making my blood boil, albeit for a short while! At least I know I'm alive ;-).

    I have never understood people for whom the past is absolutely irrelevant and anything from the past worthless and should be tossed if keeping it incurs any costs. Methinks they resemble giant anteaters: They are not at all bright, but they can do incredible damage. They are however not cute.

    Even weirder are those who are prepared to (have the tax payers) pay any price to eradicate the past.

    "Those Who Forget History Are Doomed To Repeat It" is no doubt true, but these voluntary Altzheimers sufferers will never know they are.

  2. Dan Klarmann says:

    The value of the past is in the information that may be conserved and later recovered. Some acts of overt destruction have resulted in unexpected preservation.

    For example, the New Synagogue in Berlin (1866) was used by the Nazi military in WWII as an ammo dump. They scavenged all the recyclable valuables, but used the rest of the furnishings as filler for the concrete reinforcement of floors and walls. During Soviet occupation, it was ignored. After the Berlin Wall fell, what was left of the Temple was restored, and many significant artifacts and records were recovered from the concrete.

    In contrast, note some events that did the most damage to the Parthenon. It held up fine for its first couple of millenia. Then it was used as an ammo dump in 1687. Boom. Then it was sacked by the British in the 19th century for the Elgin Marbles, and finally the disastrous restorations of the early 20th century that reshaped, stained, and split many pieces with improper locations, connectors and supports. It was loved to death.

    All the best artifacts so far discovered from the dawn of civilization in Mesopotamia were securely stored in a museum in Baghdad. Oops. Some pieces will likely turn up. Others will be mistaken for junk, and tossed.

    Many significant works of art were kept in very safe rooms, in the World Trade Center. Oops.

    When the dead sea scrolls were discovered, they were valued fireplace tinder. Lack of education was the enemy in this, and many other cases.

    Modern archaeology involves intentionally not-digging portions of sites because future techniques will likely be able to get more information from them, if and only if they remain undisturbed.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Here a link to some of those refurbished video images:

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