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