Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project: how you can help save historic space data

The Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project (LOIRP) was started by Dennis Wingo and Keith Cowing in 2008. They obtained the original analog tape drives from lunar missions in the '60s, which were literally covered in dust in a farmer’s barn, and they also got their hands on a complete collection of Lunar Orbiter analog data tapes that held a full set of all images carried back to Earth by the five spacecraft that flew between 1966 and 67.

Amazing, historic stuff. But all of these old media formats are fragile, and preservation can be a long and tedious process.

Cowing and Wingo funded the archival effort themselves in the beginning, then secured some funding from NASA. But the NASA funding was modest, and has run out; the guys have been funding the project themselves, and they don't have the resources they need. They have exceeded the requirements of NASA’s funding, but just haven't been able to retrieve and digitally archive all of these irreplaceable historic space images—yet.

So they're crowdsourcing funds on RocketHub. They've raised about 1/3 of their goal at the time of this blog post, and they have only 5 days left.

Miles O'Brien did a "This week in Space" webshow episode about the project back in 2010; check it out above.

Below, more on the project from Cowing, who is also the guy behind NASAwatch.

The LOIRP team managed to obtain original tape drives from the 1960s (covered in dust in a farmer’s barn) and a full set of original Lunar Orbiter analog data tapes (threatened with erasure) containing all images sent back to Earth by the five spacecraft between 1966-67.

None of this had been functional or usable since the late 1960s.

From the onset the project has been run on a shoestring budget. The LOIRP effort is housed in an abandoned McDonalds burger joint at Moffett Field, California (also known as "McMoons").

The LOIRP folks used spare parts bought on eBay, discarded government equipment, new hardware reverse-engineered from math equations in 50 year old documentation, modern laptops, the expertise of retired engineers and scientists, and the dedication of young students.

Think of this as “Antique Roadshow” meets “The Right Stuff” in an Apple Store. They’ve also called this activity “technoarchaeology” and “dumpster diving for science”. A pirate flag has been displayed in the front window since they started.

With this unlikely assembly of people, hardware, and hacking they have been able to retrieve Lunar Orbiter images with far more resolution and dynamic range than was possible in the 1960s. Indeed, many of the images they have retrieved equal or exceed what the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) is sending back from the Moon today. Taken together, this Lunar Orbiter imagery combined with LRO data, provides a time machine of sorts with which researchers can look at recent lunar history.

After five years the LOIRP team has optimized their hardware, software, and procedures so as to achieve an efficiency far greater than they initially possessed. In addition to capturing the remaining images, they still need to generate a formal submission of all images to NASA’s Planetary Data System.

Three weeks ago we began a crowd funding effort on RocketHub at http://www.rockethub.com/projects/14882-lunar-orbiter-image-recovery-project You will note that among the things we offer to supporters are rare photographs donated to the LOIRP by original Lunar Orbiter program participants specifically for the purpose of fundraising.

The fact that we have managed to pull all of this together still surprises us. Many people told us that this was impossible. However, if we stop this project, it is unlikely that this capability can ever be re-created.

UPDATE: From project co-lead Dennis Wingo:

I would like to thank all the boingboing folks who have so generously donated to our project.

We call what we are doing technoarcheology because we are literally digging up our technical past to restore it. It is said that only 1% of the literary works of the Greek and Roman civilizations have made it to us today. I would estimate that out of that 1% only 1% of the engineering and science works have made it to us today.

The Greeks were masterful mechanical engineers and the Romans were unsurpassed Civil Engineers. Just think if we had not lost that legacy.

This is what our project is all about, preserving the technical legacy of the American technical civilization.

Discuss

10 Responses to “Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project: how you can help save historic space data”

  1. Slipgrid says:

    We have better 1966 archival recordings, photos, and videos of the Grateful Dead.

    • Xeni Jardin says:

      And that is an excellent point. It’s the value of crowdsourcing. The Dead were the first pop culture crowdsourcers. Leave it to the government… not such a happy outcome.

  2. This is Dennis Wingo, the co-lead for the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project.  I would like to thank all the boingboing folks who have so generously donated to our project.

    We call what we are doing technoarcheology because we are literally digging up our technical past to restore it.  It is said that only 1% of the literary works of the Greek and Roman civilizations have made it to us today.  I would estimate that out of that 1% only 1% of the engineering and science works have made it to us today.

    The Greeks were masterful mechanical engineers and the Romans were unsurpassed Civil Engineers.  Just think if we had not lost that legacy.

    This is what our project is all about, preserving the technical legacy of the American technical civilization.

    Thanks again!

  3. I’m glad that somebody is doing this. It seems to only take a generation or so for things, technical know-how, to be forgotten. I cling tenaciously to my (dwindling) collection of NASA press material from the 1970′s for this very reason (it saddens me that much of my space enthusiasm these days is concentrated on those halcyon days). 

  4. kcowing says:

    I am Keith Cowing, Dennis WIngo’s partner on the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project.  I too want to thank all of you BoingBoing readers for your generosity. We’re closing in on the 50% mark now.  Given that we are truly a bare bones operation, rest assured every penny will be used frugally. We’ve already been able to order yet another tape drive head for refurbishment – that’s another 100-200 images we can retrieve.  Again THANKS!!

  5. Chris Muir says:

    I have a giant photo of the 1966 version on the wall in my studio. I love it _so_ much more than the “better” 2008 version because it reveals the state of the art in 1966. In 1966, this photo was astounding, warts and all. To me, the “improved” version is much like colorizing a classic black and white film. This said, I agree that the original data should be preserved, and have helped with the funding.

  6. I. M. Boss Hogg says:

    I have an old copy of the Gemini stress report from the early 60s stored away collecting dust. When I head to my reward the wife will deep-six it with pounds and pounds of other old stuff.
    There’s a lot of that out there…
    Oops… I might have given that report away to some cat up at MSFC!

  7. Richard Sommery-Gade says:

    Actually being next to silly cone valley (sorry couldn’t resist), that might be a great place to get donations of tech and monetary or advert help / connections besides hitting up Shatner & the rest of the old Trekky crowd. A lot of those people love helping and may actually remember those days, if they weren’t in diapers. Can’t believe that NASA didn’t keep that stuff or the Navy either, as I was on some of the Gemini and Apollo recovery Task Forces. In fact some of that recovery stuff is on board the Hornet that was involved in the recovery task force, and is berthed in Alameda Ca.  

  8. Crews Giles says:

    This reminds me that I need to spend a few weeks digitally scanning and then uploading to the Internet, my own collection of NASA related material currently sitting in a large box in a storage unit.   Too many would fail to notice the historical value.

    While I was in college, my mother explained, “We had a garage sale, and I hope it was alright that we sold some of your old toys, like that cheap model of the Apollo Command Module.” 

    “Uh, you did not notice the signature on it?  Wernher von Braun personally signed that and gave it to me.” 

  9. If they need more tape drives, may want to check with the guys at Langley, Virginia. They may have a few in a back room, somewhere.

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