Supersize Surprise: Abandoned McDonalds Holds Never Before Seen Footage From The Moon

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By Natalie Panek – A few years ago I had the opportunity to participate in an internship at NASA Ames Research Center; residing right on the Moffett Field Airfield during my term. Because I was staying on the base, I was surrounded by so much mind-blowing and incredible history. I could walk out of my room and without going very far at all, reach the Vertical Flight Simulator or even one of the world’s largest wind tunnels.

But it was an old abandoned McDonald’s building with a black pirate flag and iconic skull and crossbones hanging in the window that really captured my attention and imagination. A few days into my internship my curiosity caught up with me and I found myself wandering through the front door, unsure of what to expect. But treasure I certainly did find!

The location is now a hub for the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project (LOIRP); an attempt to digitize the original films from the five Lunar Orbiter spacecraft flown from 1966-1967. The building holds roughly 1,500 tapes on reels, all stacked row upon row in the restaurant kitchen. Imagine standing in an old McDonald’s, surrounded by never-before-seen footage from the moon, all at your fingertips!

McMoon Tapes

Inside McMoon’s: 1,500 tapes on reels that hold never-before-seen images of the Moon

These Lunar spacecraft flew as reconnaissance trips for the Apollo moon missions, but the information and images were never used or processed. JPL initially was in charge of the tapes in the 80’s, and with a small amount of funding acquired 4 Ampex FR-900 tape drives in an attempt to process the footage. Unfortunately, little progress was made.

Over the next 2 decades, attempts were made to find funding to build the hardware which would be needed to generate images from the raw data. The images taken from the spacecraft were stored on magnetic tape drives. Think of a film reel or a music cassette tape – to hear the music (i.e. data!), a cassette tape has to be inserted into a drive.

Natalie with McMoon TapeAcquiring images from these film reels is similar. Processing the images (i.e. data!) requires a magnetic tape drive system. In these machines, an applied magnetic field allows the tapes to induce and capture a change in electrical current. This information is then sent through a demodulator (extracted), then to an analog-to-digital converter in order to digitally process the information via computer. Since the images are divided into strips on the tape, a computer assembles the strips to create a whole image.

By 2008, a private team finally took over the abandoned McDonald’s, now affectionately referred to as McMoon’s, in order to start processing the images. Many recognized that these images could be invaluable comparisons to the high-res images obtained from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO – a spacecraft currently orbiting the moon).

One of the first LOIRP images processed in 2009 was of the crater Copernicus taken from the Lunar Orbiter 2 spacecraft. As of July 2012, one of the Copernicus images was compared to images take from LRO and presented at the 2012 Lunar Science Conference. Cool! And as of January 2014, the team is half way through the footage of Lunar Orbiter IV with 426 tapes to go!

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Results of film that had gone through processing

More information on this ground-breaking project that is preserving a priceless piece of history can be found here.

About This Guest Contributor:

WYSK would like to thank Rocket Scientist and STEM rock star Natalie Panek for contributing this piece.

natalie_panekAt just 28 years old, Natalie is a robotic operator and aerospace engineer at MDA Space Missions in Canada. Among countless other achievements, this accomplished Woman You Should Know drove a solar-powered car across North America, co-authored papers on flames burning in microgravity and repairing broken satellites in space, has a pilot’s license, and skydived with Korea’s first Astronaut (a woman). She’s also a spirited advocate for encouraging women to take risks and dive head-on into challenging careers.

To that end, Natalie regularly speaks at events on leadership, women in technology, and space exploration. In addition, she founded The Panek Room, a digital destination of resources that promises “Revolution.Inspiration.Adventure.” from science, engineering, and technology.

To learn more about Natalie, our latest brain crush, be sure to check out her WYSK profile.