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Preserving space masterpieces

A 1994 NBC retrospective
looks at the Apollo 11
mission and its legacy.

The Internet Archive, whose mission is to preserve the riches of the online world, has struck a deal with NASA to preserve the riches from nearly five decades of space missions. Many of those visual gems are already available from a variety of Web sources, but the deal represents the latest attempt to bring order to NASA's terabytes of photos, text documents and particularly video.

A few Web pointers will help you get by while the Internet Archive ramps up its interplanetary Wayback Machine.

Actually, the existing incarnation of the archive can already turn up some otherwise-hard-to-find goodies, particularly some classic video clips from the golden days of the space effort. This half-hour documentary on the Apollo 11 mission is a prime example. You can find other mission documentaries by searching the archive for NASA-related movies.

Videos on the early space effort are the hardest things to find on the Web. NASA does make a smattering available via the galleries on its Human Spaceflight Web site as well as its main multimedia video gallery (click the "Video Vault" link). You can also find historical NASA video on YouTube, although you have to separate the digital wheat from the chaff. Our own interactive time line on NASA's glory days provides some nice snippets of footage, including an NBC retrospective on Apollo 11.

Still imagery from past space missions is far more available, although the good stuff is widely distributed among NASA centers as well as other research institutions. Here are a few examples of the diversity:

You begin to get the idea that having the Internet Archive help NASA organize everything into one easily accessible, easily searchable database would be a really good thing. And there's a whole lot out there that has never been digitized - particularly all that historical video.

"We're dedicated to making all human knowledge available in the digital realm," Brewster Kahle, digital librarian and founder of Internet Archive, said in last week's announcement of the nonexclusive deal with NASA. "The educational value of the images NASA has collected during the course of its five decades of scientific discovery is unprecedented. Digitizing NASA's imagery is a big step in Internet Archive's ongoing efforts to digitize a vast spectrum of content and make it freely accessible to the public in an easily searched online destination."

Over the next five years, the San Francisco-based venture will work with NASA on digitization as well as organization of the database - and raise the funds required to support the effort. The first job is to consolidate more than 20 major imagery collections. Then additional digital imagery will be added to the archive. In the third year of the deal, NASA and the Internet Archive will gather up the offline imagery to be digitized and added to the database.

The freely accessible archive could also include historically significant audio, documents and computer presentations as well as videos and stills, NASA said.

This isn't the first time NASA has enlisted help for the massive task. Seven years ago, NASA struck an ambitious deal with a dot-com venture known as Dreamtime to create new multimedia presentations as well as organize NASA's existing store of space masterpieces. Dreamtime did provide some HDTV cameras for the international space station, but since then the venture has fizzled out.

A couple of years ago, NASA struck a similarly nonexclusive deal with Google to collaborate on a variety of projects, including data management. Google has incorporated NASA imagery in a variety of its mapping projects, including Google Moon and the recently announced Google Sky.

Microsoft, too, has been experimenting with NASA image databases as part of its Photosynth project, which provides the foundation for our own Space World image collections. (MSNBC.com is a Microsoft - NBC Universal joint venture.)

This all goes to show that there's plenty of room for those who want to preserve (and benefit from) NASA's space masterpieces - which, after all, have been bought and paid for by American taxpayers. For a sampling of the latest and the greatest, take a spin through our space gallery - and stay tuned for a fresh crop of Space Shots next week.

Update for 2:55 p.m. ET Aug. 30: The Internet Archive's Brewster Kahle got back to me with more details on the project. "The big news on this is not now, it's when it comes live," he told me Wednesday afternoon.

The initial incarnation of the unified NASA archive should go live in a year or less, Kahle said. It would be hosted by the Internet Archive, not NASA, and Kahle said a separate address would be created. (Brace yourself for the cybersquatters.)

"We're trying to make it so that people who are interested in imagery will have an easier time finding and enjoying these materials," he said. "Hopefully we can get another generation interested in space."

The Internet Archive will bear the costs of digitizing, organizing and presenting the imagery. Kahle said the "vast majority" of material at NASA's centers has never been digitized but is sitting in libraries.

So how much will it cost to bring all those visual riches online?

"It's in the millions of dollars, so it's significant," Kahle said. "But we actually don't know. We're just getting going. We're excited about the opportunity to get into this, but NASA has been concentrating on just getting their next mission going."

He's hoping that corporations or foundations will step up to the plate - perhaps one of the billionaires who has already shown an interest in space adventures. Although he didn't name names, the list of prospects could well include Google co-founder Larry Page (X Prize Foundation board member); Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin backer); and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen (SpaceShipOne backer).

"One sponsorship from somebody of that ilk, or a corporate entity, could bring the wealth of historic NASA collections online," Kahle said.