Inside the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project

If these photos of NASA's Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project look suspiciously like they might actually have been taken inside an abandoned McDonalds ... well, that's very observant of you.

All of those film canisters you see in the first image are actually spools of 70mm magnetic tape containing the analog originals of images taken by the Lunar Orbiter spacecraft in 1966 and 1967. Very few of these images have been seen by the public—at least, in their full glory. Some of the images were released early on, but only as grainy photos of photos. The originals are a lot more sharp and detailed.

After sitting in storage for decades—most notably in a barn in California—the tapes were brought to the NASA Ames Research Center in 2007. Since then, some of the originals have been digitized and preserved. (There's a good chance you saw a few in 2008, when the first preserved images were released.) Others are still in process. There's not much funding for this type of work, and it can get expensive, as it involves maintaining extremely rare FR-900 tape drives.

These photos of the LOIRP facility were taken in 2008 by venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson, who has been on a couple of tours there. He says:

Some of the applications of this project, beyond accessing the best images of the moon ever taken, are to look for new landing sites for the new Google Lunar X-Prize robo-landers, and to compare the new craters on the moon today to 40 years ago, a measure of micrometeorite flux and risk to future lunar operations.

Check out NASA's page on LOIRP

Visit the official LOIRP team website

Check out Steve Jurvetson's photos on Flickr. If you scroll down in the comments, you'll find a photo of the outside of the LOIRP facility, taken this week.

CORRECTION: Sorry, guys. Apparently, I'm an idiot and/or need to cover space stories more often. I'd been under the impression that NASA Ames Research Center was in Iowa, I think because I once talked to a researcher there who also had an appointment at the University of Iowa. It is actually in California. D'oh. Story is fixed now.

Thanks to Andy Ihnatko for alerting me to these photos!

Image: McMoon, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from jurvetson's photostream


    1. Ahhh, that explains all the things that were causing me total confusion in the article – such as why they were in Iowa, why a McDonalds, and how the McDonalds happened to be abandoned in the first place.  It’s because: they aren’t in Iowa, and the building is on the base.

  1. I didn’t know there was such a thing as an abandoned McDonalds.  Those things are money factories.

    1. Closed Air Force base.  I ate there once a long time ago, probably my first and only Big Mac.

    2. Not even close.  50% of it has to do with location.  One closed down a few years ago near me (after being in the same place for 20+ years).  The main reason was competition and the fact it was on one side of a divided road.  The same also went for the Wendy’s and KFC not far down the street. 

  2. They should charge admission. I’d pay at least $200.00 to sleep in that sleeping bag on the floor of an abandoned McDonalds surrounded by NASA footage and equipment. I could pretend I’m a character in a William Gibson novel. I want to go to there.

  3. Ames Research Center is a NASA facility near San Francisco Bay.

    Ames, Iowa is a city in Iowa.

    They are not alike.

    1. As an ISU alum, I’m bummed I didn’t see the uncorrected original post because I missed a golden oportunity to “BWAAHHH HAaa haaa!!1!!1!!”

      Sorry, Maggie.  I really love your posts, but  I can’t help myself.  People make that mistake all the time and it never ceases to amuse me. 

  4. Something I learned from the internet a long time ago: You’d be amazed at the shit you can find in a barn…

    1. When we pulled the drives out of the barn  there were chickens running around. A lizard lived inside one of the drives. We loaded them onto rental trucks in a horse corral. 

  5. As others have said, this is not in Iowa. This is in Mountain View, CA. I lived in Ames, Iowa for many years, and it would have been so cool to have a project like this on or near the ISU campus, but alas no…

  6. This project should be on kickstarter — it would be the first project I contributed to.

    1. If you are an American, your tax dollars have already paid for this processing. It has been done by USGS. Check out the NASA Planetary Data System. 

      I suspect that that’s why this LOIRP thing stalled. The word has to be getting out by now.

      1. Your USGS coworkers have quite a different opinion, David. Same goes for NASA lunar scientists.  You might want to ask them before you post uniformed comments like this in the future. Keith Cowing/LOIRP

        1. And then there was the display of our new Copernicus image that was shown to thousands of people – by NASA – at the big AIAA exploration conference in Washington, DC a month or so ago.

  7. What happened to my comment? The one I posted this morning in which I pointed out that this LO effort is anything but unique? USGS has the same film (the amount in the article is exaggerated, by the way) and has processed it in much the same way. The results have been presented at scientific meetings and published in peer-reviewed journals. I have yet to work out why this LOIRP thing gets as much attention as it does. Maybe because of the McDonalds? Or the logo?

      1. Yes, that’s what I am saying. I posted it this morning. It has been removed. The article has also been reworked to remove inaccurate claims about the amount of film involved, too. That was pointed out in another comment, by another person, which has also been deleted.

        1. Two thoughts:
          1) When Antinous says there wasn’t another post under your name, he means that he didn’t remove it. It never registered as being posted. 
          2) My article has only been reworked in one way, to remove the statement that Ames Research Center is in Iowa. I didn’t write anything about the amount of film. So that’s not been changed. 

          Given that (and I mean this respectfully because I’ve done the same thing) are you sure didn’t post your comment somewhere else that was running the same story? 

    1. David your comments are simply inaccurate. Incredibly inaccurate. I’ll be forwarding them to USGS. For a historian you really have no idea what you are talking about.

    2. We are not using “film”, David.  We have the original analog data tapes.  USGS scanned photos of photos. By definition we have more data i.e. resolution and frequency range to work with than copies of copies of copies. Check your facts before you post your inaccurate commentary next time. I would think that the expertise would be rather easy to access where you work (USGS).

      1. No. That is wrong. You have no idea what you are talking about. We used first-generation films, non-degraded, and the images we’ve scanned are of higher quality than your images. This project was completed three years ago and has been featured in scientific lit and at conferences. 

        It doesn’t matter if you use analog data tapes if they are degraded. It may sound impressive to some funding sources, but the fact is, this work has been done.

        1. David we use the original data tapes and they are in pristine condition. USGS used photos.  Go talk to someone who actually knows what they are talking about. Seriously – your comments reflect poorly on the USGS.

    3. dsfportree

      Hi, this is Dennis Wingo and I am the co-founder, along with Keith of the LOIRP project.  First of all, the USGS film is a parallel record that was made during the lunar orbiter missions.  The information that we have is on the original analog tapes from the three ground stations at Woomera, Madrid, and Goldstone.  

      The original analog tapes from the ground stations that we have are different from the film that is at the USGS in Flagstaff Arizona.  The film was limited in dynamic range, having approximately 1-256 dynamic range for the grey scale.  This is because the 35mm film was taken from a kinescope.   Our analog tapes are from the direct broadcast from the spacecraft and represents the original scans of the 70 mm film on the spacecraft which had a dynamic range of 1-1000.

      Our images, with four times the dynamic range of the film at the USGS has been shown to worldwide acclaim for the amazing increase in texture and details that our images bring out, well beyond what is possible from the film.  For more details on this you can down load the following document from the NASA Lunar Planetary Lab in Texas

      Guide to Lunar Orbiter Photographs

      As for Mr. Cowings participation, Keith has worked as an untiring volunteer on this project.  He maintains the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project at

      He works to publicize our project and he even put up the initial funds to move the tapes from NASA JPL to NASA Ames.  

      Through this entire time, Keith has not received on dime in compensation from our project that is NASA funded.  I write each and every check and can verify that.

      As for the reason why our story is popular?  It has great elements of history attached to it as being the first mission to the Moon.  It has a great person, in the form of Nancy Evans, who single handedly saved the tapes, and saved the tape drives from utter destruction.  None of our work would be possible today without her and Mark Nelson’s work in the late 1980’s.  

      There was also the unlikely confluence of events of a random post in a blog that I saw and connected to my work with the Lunar Orbiter film in the 1980’s, our connections to Ames and the vision of its center director Dr. Pete Worden who supports these kinds of activities.  

      There is also the story of the old men of the Apollo era like Ken Zin, Charlie Byrne, and Al Sturm, who through their lifelong experience, helped to resurrect the ability to read these tapes when the “experts” said it would take millions of dollars to do which we did at a fraction of the cost.

      Then there are our students, who are doing original science on the images.

      All of this is being done in an abandoned MacDonald’s on a former Navy base next to a dirigible hanger.

      What is not to like about that?

      Oh, by the way that is my sleeping bag in the picture, and yep I have slept there on occasion when we were working late.

      1. Nancy Evans and Mark Nelson paved the way. We’d have made no progress without Ken Zin, Charlie Byrne, and Al Sturm.  We’d also not have gotten as far without the help of a bunch of young students as well. This effort spans 3 to 4 generations. There is a legacy to leave behind. Once the older folks are no longer available this knowledge needs to reside in younger minds.

  8. Apparently there’s still some confusion. The correction you posted mentions the University of Iowa, but that institution is in Iowa City. Ames, IA is the home of Iowa State University.

      1. Thanks for taking the time to check us out. If you are ever in the Bay area drop us a note and we’ll give you the tour.  Keith Cowing/LOIRP

      2. It’s a mistake that is often made by people who’ve never been. Like mixing up Cornell and Ithaca College, perhaps. The BoingBoing crew can drink with this Cyclone alumnus, now in Chicago, anytime.

        1. Oh and we call the place “McMoons” and refer to the tape drives as “The Stargate”, “The Reactor”, or “The Time Machine” just to confuse things further. We had one person confuse “McDonalds” and “McDonnell Douglas” and somehow weaved the Knights Templar into it.  All in good fun.

  9. So this has descended into a bizarre sort of chaos, but I’d just like to point out that according to the wikipedia article , the photographs were taken using film, then scanned and transmitted as data back to Earth.

    The original photographs were not returned – the orbiters all were crashed into the surface of the moon.

    So if somebody here has the original tapes, and somebody else has photographs, then it follows that the tapes are the originals and the photographs were produced from the data on the tapes.

    This doesn’t preclude getting better images from the secondhand material, but assuming the same quality of processing, then the original data should be better.

    1. You have described the imaging process accurately. There are several ways to look at this. You can argue that working with sixty-year old magnetic tape is best, even though it means working with ancient equipment and tapes stored in a barn. Or, you can argue that un-degraded high-quality film, which captured the original high-quality images from the original, undegraded tapes very shortly after they were recorded, is better. 

      You can also argue that any increase in fidelity that might be possible from using the tapes is hardly worth the effort, given that the effort is by LOIRP’s own admission considerable and costly. The USGS effort is done, already paid for by taxpayers, and making a scientific contribution right now. In fact, one of my students was using the scans to look for changes in pyroclastic deposits until May. Fascinating work.

      1. David you really should check your facts before you continue to post ill-informed comments such as this.  You clearly don’t have a basic understanding of how the data was recorded in the first place. Every post you make just drives that point home further. If you want to continue to embarrass yourself, by all means do so.

      2. dsfportree

        There is no such thing as undegraded film, just as there is no such thing as undegraded tape.  I have been doing archival retrieval work since the mid 1980’s and one of my first jobs in this area was digitizing several million microfilm records from the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force.

        I wrote original papers on the relative degradation of Silver Halide film vs the Diazo process.  I was a test engineer on the equipment that digitized thousands of aperture cards of microfilm per hour.

        This project was DSREDS/EDCARS and was the first terabyte class document scanning project in history.

        When NASA recorded the images on the 2″ video tape they recorded them in “pre demodulation” format.  This means that the analog scans of the 70mm film on the spacecraft were combined with the digital telemetry from the spacecraft and transmitted to the Earth.

        On the Earth the images were written to the tape drives before they were demodulated and then the demodulated data was displayed on a kinescope that generated the 35mm film that you have at USGS.

        The pre demodulated data on the tapes, we have recreated by using modern technology to demodulate the analog scans and telemetry data.  The analog data is digitized at 16 bits and 5 megasamples per second, approximately 10x  overscan from the original frequency domain of the analog image information, coupled with a 65,535 dynamic range, approximately a factor of 6,500 above the dynamic range of the original data.

        This is possible due to the cheap cost of hard drives today.

        We have shown beyond any shadow of a doubt that the images produced from our method has superior grey scale resolution than the best of the USGS film scans.  We work in a very collegial fashion with the folks at USGS and it is unfortunate that you take this belligerent and factually incorrect tact in  your responses to this article.

        1. Addendum

          The pre demodulated format preserves entirely the original quality of the data from the spacecraft.  The demodulator that we use takes the FM signal and demodulates that.  It is further demodulated from a “Vestigial Side Band” (VSB) format which can be considered to be an early form of analog compression.

          This preserves the data in its original full dynamic range.  The degradation that we get today are from flaws in the analog tape that create transitory artifacts but do not effect the dynamic range or resolution of the images.

          In our reproductions of the Apollo 14 landing site that we published we were honored when one of the flight controllers from that mission emailed us and said that if they had our images in front of them when the astronauts were looking for the crater that was their main mission objective, they would have found it.

          Our images clearly showed a rock that the crew was standing on one side of when the crater was on the other side.  This was the major objective of the mission that was missed because they only had the images derived from film at that time.

          We are quite proud of our work and it has been honored for its quality and for our work to save our legacy from the Apollo era.  The USGS also does great work and I have great admiration for the folks in Flagstaff.

  10.  Another error in Maggie’s write-up. The original film source was 70mm but the magnetic tape is 2 inch as developed for the Ampex Quad. The format fell out of use but many Quads survived in the TV industry until the mid 1980s.  There was often a jar of iron particles suspended in liquid next to an Ampex machine because you could actually make the recordings visible because the magnetic fluid would stick to the recorded stripes. An editor could then cut along these lines and splice sequences together.

  11. I am intrigued to see on the moonviews site that there are processing hairs on the image for the most recent photo posted (17 September 2012). Lunar Orbiter 2 Image 2072 H3. I understood from reading above, that the images come from the tapes and the data was collected directly from the ground stations receiving the signals from the LO and npot scanned from USGS hard copies, so how did the hair get there?

Comments are closed.