Obsolescence is an inherent fate of all things technological. It takes the determined efforts of self-proclaimed “techno-archaeologists” to disrupt this eventual fate. This is the case with the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project (LOIRP). Housed in a disused McDonalds at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, a small team of retired scientists and engineers used their ingenuity and elbow grease to retrieve one of the most important sets of photographs ever made.
From 1966 to 1967, a time of particular historical turbulence (University of Texas shootings, protests against the Vietnam War, catastrophic earthquake in Turkey), five unmanned space probes were sent on reconnaissance missions to survey the lunar landscape, their main goal to find an appropriate landing site for the soon-to-begin Apollo program. The five Lunar Orbiter modules captured, for the first time in the history of photography, images of the lunar landscape and of the Earth from the perspective of another celestial body. On board these space crafts, a specifically built 70-millimeter Kodak camera and an automated processing unit prepared the photographs for Earth-bound transmission. The data had to travel some 240,000 miles to reach its destination. It was incontrovertibly the longest distance that an image had ever traveled to reach its receiver. In their short lifespans orbiting the Moon, each orbiter captured, processed, and transmitted nearly 200 high-resolution photographs before its final impact with the lunar surface.
The image signals were recorded as files onto reels of analog magnetic tape. Only a handful of these files were ever processed (though, because of technological limitations, not at the highest resolution the files were capable of); these were soon released to the marvel of viewers before public attention was diverted to the more ambitious landing of Apollo and its crew. For two decades, these tapes were stored in the NASA archives, until 1986, when the decision to discard them was contested by Nancy Evans, longtime archivist for the space program. Evans rescued and took over custodial storage of the tapes, and, after another 20 years, in 2006, secured funding and eventually came into contact with aeronautical engineer Dennis Wingo to process and digitize the vast archive of never-seen images of the Moon.
The small LOIRP team, led by Wingo and Keith Cowing, working in the old McDonalds (replete with the characteristic orange and yellow furnishings, drive-through window, deep fryers, and so on), have sourced old parts from discarded tape drives and engineered new improvements to construct a machine that has only recently completed the digitization of the entire 1,500 reels of magnetic tape, recovering the latent image data that has remained entombed for nearly half a century, and in turn providing a renewed opportunity to examine their historical significance.