The moon race of the ‘60s has transformed into a race to the auction block, with Sotheby’s currently touting videotapes of Neil Armstrong’s and Buzz Aldrin’s 1969 walk in the Sea of Tranquility, saying they are so unusual they could fetch $2 million.
NASA, last week though, responded with, slow your roll. These are not the tapes it was looking for. Sotheby’s says it never said they were.
Sothebys, the auction house offering the batch of tapes July 20, on the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, makes clear that these are different tapes, not the “missing” recordings that were the subject of the space agency’s search. Its material says these are the “earliest, sharpest and most accurate surviving video images of man’s first steps.”
And: “Unrestored, unenhanced, and unremastered, the significance of the videotapes was recognized during NASA’s fruitless search at the time of the 40th anniversary of the lunar landing for its original SSTV recordings.”
The former intern who bought a batch of tapes for $217.77, according to various news reports, however said he had the “missing” tapes of the historic first steps on lunar soil.
A community of Apollo enthusiasts familiar with the project to find the original recordings has reacted with dismay because of what they feel is confusion about the the technical details of which tapes are which. The tapes for sale are unusual, they say, and may be worth a bundle, but they are not the recordings the space agency and those involved were searching for.
NASA issued a statement last week to help resolve that confusion, saying it has resulted from “two distinct events that seem to have become conflated.” In its statement, the space agency clarified that the original data tapes – “telemetry tapes” – contain the images from the Westinghouse camera on the moon, and they were not found, and were not the videotapes of the feed to Mission Control and the world. Those original images were converted to the standard TV format for viewing on your TV.
“If the tapes are as described in the sale material,” the NASA statement concludes, “they are 2-inch videotapes recorded in Houston from the video that had been converted to a format that could be broadcast over commercial television and contain no material that hasn’t been preserved at NASA.”
In other words, they aren’t the “missing” tapes.
Nevertheless the news of the sale and the tapes has been reported by Reuters, USA Today, People, CNN and Bloomberg. Last month’s Reuters’ story circulated widely, and in it Gary George said he bought the three videotapes at an auction in 1976 and, when he heard, in 2008, that NASA was looking for the original tapes, concluded he had them.
From Reuters: In 2008, George was vacationing with a NASA friend who told him he was tasked with locating the lost videotapes. He said, ‘It seems we’ve lost our original tapes of the Apollo 11 EVA,’” George told Reuters. “Quite frankly, I was sitting at the table drinking a beer and I said, ‘Well damn, I have those,’” he recalled.
Stephen Slater, a NASA historian and archive specialist who was the archival producer of the “Apollo 11” documentary, has reached out to the Reuters reporter to point out the tapes for sale are not the only surviving tapes.
In an email, he wrote, “I checked their (Sotheby’s) press release, in which they actually claim that they are the ‘best surviving NASA videotape recordings,’ which is slightly less sensational, however both claims are categorically untrue.”
Sotheby’s told the New York Times “comparing the tapes on offer to other extant copies, such as the BBC’s or the tapes at CBS News Archives, was ‘totally unnecessary,’ and that the ‘first generation’ label still applied.”
The resulting confusion centers on a misunderstanding of what the search teams were trying to find. The camera that transmitted the images used a different format. It had a slow-scan (10 frames per second as opposed to the standard 30 frames per second) and used 320 lines (as opposed to 525 on your TV at home) . The images were recorded on telemetry tapes, 14-inch reels with 14 tracks – one for video – weighing 15 pounds each.
On these tapes are the clearest and sharpest images of Armstrong’s and Aldrin’s two-hour-plus walk on the moon. They were converted and therefore degraded for broadcast. The Sotheby’s tapes apparently are from a pool feed shown at the MSC Auditorium in Texas, Slater said.
In 2005, NASA’s statement said, the search for the originals began. NASA concluded the data tapes were erased and reused. But the search turned up high-quality footage, the agency said, including the video sent directly from Houston to CBS.
“There was no video that came down slow scan that was not converted live, fed live, to Houston and fed live to the world,” engineer Richard Nafzger, part of the search team, said at a 2009 press conference. “So, just in case anyone thinks there is video out there that hasn’t been seen, that is not the case.”
Slater said he pointed out to Sotheby’s that other tapes exist.
“As for being able to say they are the ‘best,’ the best according to whom?” he said in an email. “It’s hard to find anyone who can definitively say one way or the other.
“Because there’s no ‘official’ authority on such matters, it may mean they can get away with it ... the claims are hard to refute without getting really technical.”
Scott Lebar’s father was Stan Lebar, the creator of the lunar TV camera and was involved in the search for the original tapes. He has written about his father’s efforts. This story was changed on July 15, 2019 to include Sotheby’s response and to clarify that it has never said it was auctioning the tapes NASA searched for.