lunar landing

Original Apollo 11 landing videotapes sell for $1.8M

Posted by | apollo, apollo 11, Gadgets, hardware, lunar landing, moon landing, NASA, sotheby's, Space | No Comments

VCRs didn’t really exist when the first men walked on the moon, but NASA was ahead of the curve and recorded the event for posterity on videotapes — which just sold at auction for $1.8 million. The Hasselblads may have captured more detail, but there’s nothing else in the world quite like these tapes.

On July 20, 1969, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong stepped out of the Lunar Module and onto the surface of the Moon, under the watchful eye of a camera custom-made by Westinghouse for the purpose. It was mounted just outside the hatch so Aldrin could turn it on and establish a connection before he and Armstrong performed their famous descent of the LM ladder.

The camera, which was later detached and set on a tripod to capture the other surface activities, was transmitting 10 frames per second over the LM’s high-gain antenna back to Parkes Observatory in Australia. There they were recorded onto a set of large-format reel-to-reel videotape, then retransmitted to Houston, where they were recorded to 2-inch Quadruplex videotape on an Ampex VR-660B. Of course it was then formatted for TV and sent out to the world, as well.

Sadly, the original Australian slow-scan tapes were apparently later reused for other purposes, in probably the most egregious taping-over incident of all time. That means the Ampex tapes were the best known motion picture recording of Apollo 11’s lunar EVAs.

Sadly again, those original tapes were sold for $217.77 at a government surplus auction in 1976 as part of a lot of over a thousand other reels of Ampex videotape obviously thought to be no longer needed. The purchaser, Gary George, was an intern at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, and he had bought the tapes because he thought he could make a bit of scratch re-selling them to TV stations.

Apollo 11 Tapes Reel 1

Fortunately for everyone, George noticed that three of the tapes had labels reading “APOLLO 11 EVA | July 20, 1969.” These, he reasoned, might be worth keeping. Turns out they were more than two hours of raw footage, including “One small step for man” and everything else that the world saw transpire live, but in better quality than any other copy on Earth. As Sotheby’s puts it:

The present videotapes are the only surviving first-generation recordings of the historic moon walk, and are sharper and more distinct than the few tapes that have survived from the contemporary network television broadcasts – all of which endured some loss of video and audio quality with each successive transmission from microwave tower to microwave tower.

Here’s a clip:

#AuctionUpdate Unrestored, unenhanced, and unremastered, the videotapes represent the earliest, sharpest, and most accurate surviving video images of man’s first steps on the moon #Apollo50th pic.twitter.com/f2ulCpIHqz

— Sotheby’s (@Sothebys) July 20, 2019

Fast-forward 30 years and the tapes were finally brought out of storage for Apollo 11’s 40th anniversary, where they were shown for only the second time since he bought them in 1976, and digitized for posterity. They were played one more time by Sotheby’s experts while verifying these artifacts for auction over the weekend.

Tape is by no means indestructible, and it’s amazing that these are in such great condition; that and the fervor surrounding all things Moon these days must have contributed to the tapes finally going for $1.82 million, nearly four times the half-million that the auction house had predicted. Gary George made out pretty well on that surplus buy.

Of course, the purchaser has not yet revealed themselves, but perhaps in the near future we will find that it is one of the many billionaires afflicted with space madness who wanted to add this unique piece of media to their collection. And perhaps they will be generous enough to share it for public viewing — though honestly, the digital copy should be nearly indistinguishable.

Other items sold at auction for a total of hundreds of thousands more dollars are some signed Apollo 11 memorabilia, some original Apollo control panels from Kennedy’s Firing Room 1 and the first and last pages from the actual Apollo 11 flight plan that flew on the mission, which sold for about $300K by themselves. With luck, those of us without disposable income in the seven-figure range will be able to view these as well.

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Israel’s Beresheet spacecraft is lost during historic lunar landing attempt

Posted by | beresheet, Gadgets, Israel, lunar landing, science, Space, SpaceX | No Comments

Israel’s SpaceIL almost made history today as its Beresheet spacecraft came within an ace of landing on the surface of the Moon, but suffered a last-minute failure during descent. Israel missed out on the chance to be the fourth country to make a controlled lunar landing, but getting 99 percent of the way there is still an extraordinary achievement for private spaceflight.

Beresheet (“Genesis”) launched in February as secondary payload aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, and after a month and a half spiraling outward, entered lunar orbit a week ago. Today’s final maneuver was an engine burn meant to bring down its relative velocity to the Moon, then brake to a soft landing in the Mare Serenitatis, or Sea of Serenity.

Everything was working fine up until the final moments, as is often the case in space. The craft, having made it perfectly to its intended point of descent, determined that all systems were ready and the landing process would go ahead as planned.

They lost telemetry for a bit, and had to reset the craft to get the main engine back online… and then communication dropped while only a handful of kilometers from the surface. The “selfie” image above was taken from 22 km above the surface, just a few minutes before that. The spacecraft was announced as lost shortly afterwards.

Clearly disappointed but also exhilarated, the team quickly recovered its composure, saying “the achievement of getting to where we got is tremendous and we can be proud,” and of course, “if at first you don’t succeed… try, try again.”

The project began as an attempt to claim the Google Lunar Xprize, announced more than a decade ago, but which proved too difficult for teams to attempt in the time frame specified. Although the challenge and its prize money lapsed, Israel’s SpaceIL team continued its work, bolstered by the support of Israel Aerospace Industries, the state-owned aviation concern there.

It’s worth noting that although Beresheet did enjoy considerable government support in this way, it’s a far cry from any other large-scale government-run mission, and can safely be considered “private” for all intents and purposes. The ~50-person team and $200 million budget are laughably small compared to practically any serious mission, let alone a lunar landing.

I spoke with Xprize’s founder and CEO, Peter Diamandis and Anousheh Ansari, respectively, just before the landing attempt. Both were extremely excited and made it clear that the mission was already considered a huge success.

“What I’m seeing here is an incredible ‘Who’s Who’ from science, education and government who have gathered to watch this miracle take place,” Diamandis said. “We launched this competition now 11 years ago to inspire and educate engineers, and despite the fact that it ran out of time it has achieved 100 percent of its goal. Even if it doesn’t make it onto the ground fully intact it has ignited a level of electricity and excitement that reminds me of the Ansari Xprize 15 years ago.”

He’s not the only one. Ansari, who funded the famous spaceflight Xprize that bore her name, and who has herself visited space as one of the first tourist-astronauts above the International Space Station, felt a similar vibe.

“It’s an amazing moment, bringing so many great memories up,” she told me. “It reminds me of when we were all out in the Mojave waiting for the launch of Spaceship One.”

Ansari emphasized the feeling the landing evoked of moving forward as a people.

“Imagine, over the last 50 years only 500 people out of seven billion have been to space — that number will be thousands soon,” she said. “We believe there’s so much more that can be done in this area of technology, a lot of real business opportunities that benefit civilization but also humanity.”

Congratulations to the SpaceIL team for their achievement, and here’s hoping the next attempt makes it all the way down.

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