One Giant Leap for Videokind

As anyone who watches TV, listens to radio, or surfs the Web knows by now, yesterday was the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11's landing on the Moon and humanity's first footfall on a celestial body other than the Earth. I remember watching with rapt attention as the grainy, fuzzy, black-and-white video was accompanied by the authoritative voice of Walter Cronkite, who was so overcome with emotion at that moment, he paused, removed his glasses, and chuckled in amazement. (BTW, anyone who believes the moon landings were staged must watch the Mythbusters episode about it. Busted!)

Of course, Neil Armstrong's first words upon stepping onto the lunar surface are immortal: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." I've heard that Armstrong claims he actually said, "That's one small step for a man...," which certainly makes more sense, but I've never heard that "a." Some of the other words in his little speech are abruptly truncated, so maybe it was a glitch in the comm system.

An even bigger glitch was recently discovered by NASA—the original video recording of that historic occasion went missing, and a 3-year effort to find it was unsuccessful. According to some reports, those tapes were likely erased and used to record subsequent events in the '70s or '80s because of a tape shortage! Oops...

Maybe all is not lost. That video footage was broadcast to hundreds of millions of viewers around the world, so it must be filed away somewhere. But the image quality was seriously degraded by the time it was scan-converted—the camera on the Lunar Excursion Module used a non-standard scan format—and sent to broadcasters via microwave, satellite, and analog landlines.

In an effort to preserve the precious footage for future generations, NASA has undertaken the task of restoring it from broadcast archives as well as tapes from the NASA video-switching center in Sydney, Australia, and kinescopes found in the film vault at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Well, actually, NASA contracted with Lowry Digital, a company that specializes in restoring old Hollywood movies and video, including Star Wars, some James Bond films, and Casablanca.

Last Thursday, NASA unveiled the first 15 clips from the project, some of which can be seen here as 720p QuickTime movies. Yep, the clips were mastered in high def, and they look pretty good, considering what Lowry had to work with.

I'm eager to see more of these images over the coming months as the world celebrates this human triumph. My biggest hope is that the restoration project will add to the impetus to return to the Moon and establish a permanent base from which to explore the rest of the Solar System. Now that would be a giant leap!

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