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Moonwalk video gets a makeover

Click for video: A side-by-side comparison shows a frame from NASA's archival
video of Apollo 11's Neil Armstrong making his way down the lunar module's ladder
at left, and a restored version of the same frame at right. Click on the image to
watch a video in which NASA's Dick Nafzger explains the differences in depth.

That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for video restoration.

Forty years after the fact, some of the most historic moments of Apollo 11's televised moonwalk have been brought into sharper focus using computerized image processing techniques.

The black-and-white video still pales in comparison with today's high-definition space extravaganzas, but the experts behind the restoration project emphasize that this is a work in progress. NASA promises that when the restoration of the moonwalk video is complete, the public will see "the highest-quality video of this historic event."

How TV was done in 1969
Samples of the restored video - including Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong's climb down the lunar module's ladder, his "one small step" onto the lunar surface and the raising of the American flag - were released today at the Newseum in Washington to commemorate the 1969 moon mission. Today marks the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11's launch, and on Monday it will be 40 years to the day since Armstrong and crewmate Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon.

The first TV pictures from another world were captured by a small camera mounted on a hinged assembly on the Apollo 11 lunar module. When Armstrong stepped out onto the module's platform, he swung the assembly into position - setting up the view of the astronauts on the ladder and footpad. Later in the moonwalk, Armstrong removed the camera from the assembly and mounted it on a tripod for scenes such as the flag-raising.

The TV signal was transmitted from the moon using a special slow-scan video format, which had to be converted into the standard broadcast format at downlink stations in Australia (as immortalized in the movie "The Dish") and California. Then the standard signal was relayed to NASA and broadcasters around the world.

The restoration brings out additional details in the fuzzy video that Americans saw on their television sets on July 20, 1969, and at the same time smooths out the electronic "snow" in the picture. When Armstrong steps down the ladder, for instance, his visor and the outline of his spacesuit can be seen within the shadows - something that most viewers couldn't see nearly as well 40 years ago.

'Lost' tapes may be lost for good
Today's announcement blended some bad news with the good news: For years, video sleuths have been looking for the cleaner slow-scan view of the moonwalk, which had been saved on tape during the mission. NASA engineer Dick Nafzger and others crossed the globe, searching for those "lost" tapes, but came up empty-handed.

"The slow-scan recordings are no longer," Nafzger said.

Nafzger explained that the video was preserved as one track on a 14-track magnetic tape that also recorded telemetry from the Apollo 11 mission. "This is the only time in the Apollo program we recorded television on a telemetry tape," he said.

After the flight, about 45 tapes thought to contain the slow-scan moonwalk video data were archived as part of a 200,000-tape inventory that NASA kept at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. Through the years, the archive's managers would determine which tapes were no longer needed. Those tapes would be erased and reused for telemetry from the missions that followed.

Nafzger surmised that the tapes with the slow-scan data were put into the queue for reuse and eventually were recorded over - perhaps even during a later Apollo or Skylab flight. Because the tapes were primarily used for telemetry, it's likely that no one at the time realized that they were erasing the best video record of the Apollo 11 moonwalk, Nafzger said.

There's still one ray of hope, however: Nafzger and his fellow sleuths discovered that an experiment in slow-scan TV conversion was being conducted at the Parkes Observatory in Australia at the time of the moonwalk, and that two slow-scan tapes might have been made during the moonwalk. "These two tapes, consisting of an hour each, approximately, are still missing. ... they're not in the system," Nafzger said.

Doing something for history
So if the "lost tapes" are still lost, how was the restoration done? Nafzger said he and the rest of his team were "desperate to do something for history if we could." In the course of their search, they turned up some broadcast-quality imagery that hadn't been seen in nearly 40 years. Some of it came from CBS News, some came from the National Archives, some came from Australia. Some of it even came from an 8mm wind-up film camera that was held up and aimed at a video monitor at NASA's Mission Control Center.

Apollo 11's Buzz Aldrin looks somewhat sharper in a
frame from a restored version of NASA video from
the moon landing on July 20, 1969.

NASA digitized the imagery and enlisted California-based Lowry Digital to do some heavy-duty reprocessing. Lowry's technique has been compared to "digital botox." Its proprietary software analyzes each frame of video and selects the best pixels for an averaged-out, smoothed-out, cleaned-up version. 

The technique was pioneered back in 1971 by company founder John Lowry, when it was used to restore film from the Apollo 16 and 17 missions. More recently, Lowry has lent a hand with restoring classic movies such as "Casablanca" and "Citizen Kane," and sweetening up the visuals for contemporary films such as the Oscar-nominated Brad Pitt movie, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."

NASA set strict limits on how much restoration could be done. The first part of the complete moonwalk video will be upside down, just as it was when it was aired in 1969. Dust on the lens and internal reflections are being left in as well. "We could make these images 'perfect,' but at a certain point you begin to lose authenticity," Patrick Edquist, Lowry's project manager for the restoration, said in a company statement.

During today's briefing, Nafzger was asked whether asking a company with Hollywood connections to restore the video might give more ammunition to moon-hoax conspiracy theorists. In response, he pointed out that Lowry's roots with NASA go even deeper than its roots with Hollywood. "I don't care where they're from. This company is restoring historic video," Nafzger said. "This particular company has a history with NASA. ... There couldn't be a more perfect match."

He emphasized that the Apollo 11 restoration project has only been in the works for a few weeks, and estimated that the restoration was about 40 percent complete. The costs are being covered by a $230,000 contract that Lowry has with NASA. NASA says the complete moonwalk video should be ready for release in HD format in September.

Nafzger acknowledged that the quality in the 1969 broadcast, and most likely in the restored video as well, could have been better. "Some of the degradation that you saw was not necessary," he said. But he pointed out that getting a great picture was not the first priority at the time.

"The goal was to land and come back safely," he said. "It was not television."

Update for 5:45 p.m. ET: Here's a video from ITN that delves into another Apollo 11 restoration project. The documentary "Moonwalk One" was commissioned by NASA to chronicle the Apollo 11 mission, but fizzled out when it made the rounds in the early 1970s. Recently the original footage was remastered and reissued in a "director's cut" version. Good thing the director had the original 35mm film sitting in boxes under his desk for all those years.

Update for 6:50 p.m. ET: The Associated Press' Seth Borenstein passes along the dismayed reactions from outside historians to today's good-news/bad-news report:

"It's surprising to me that NASA didn't have the common sense to save perhaps the most important historical footage of the 20th century," said Rice University historian and author Douglas Brinkley. He noted that NASA saved all sorts of data and artifacts from Apollo 11, and it is "mind-boggling that the tapes just disappeared."

The remastered copies may look good, but "when dealing with historical film footage, you always want the original to study," Brinkley said.

Smithsonian Institution space curator Roger Launius, a former NASA chief historian, said the loss of the original video "doesn't surprise me that much."

"It was a mistake, no doubt about that," Launius said. "This is a problem inside the entire federal government. ... They don't think that preservation is all that important."

Launius said federal warehouses where historical artifacts are saved are "kind of like the last scene of `Raiders of the Lost Ark.' It just goes away in this place with other big boxes."

Update for 8:15 p.m. ET: Don't miss this "Nightly News" report from NBC News' Tom Costello about the moonwalk makeover, with commentary from anchor Brian Williams (as well as an anchorman from the past, David Brinkley).

More about moon imagery:

More about the Apollo 11 anniversary: 

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