Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Apollo babies (hackers) recover earth-rise

This beautiful pix showing earth-rise for the first time (and its companions) will certainly be a joy forever. One more proof that the world is being  ruled by hackers and we are just allowed to live in it (and gawp at their achievements).

The most recent and impressive ones are the Lost Lunar Orbiter (satellite) pictures from 1966. It is mind-boggling what the folks did in those early days with so little money and primitive technology. Space was the new frontier then, and that magic cant be recreated easily. If someone can do it, we bet it will be the hackers (aka techno-archaeologists). Take a bow, Keith Conning and Dennis Wingo.

Finally, we just got bit by the nostalga bug when we read about Usenet and Radio Shack. Good old days!!!
Sitting incongruously among the hangars and laboratories of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley is the squat facade of an old McDonald’s. You won’t get a burger there, though–its cash registers and soft-serve machines have given way to old tape drives and modern computers run by a rogue team of hacker engineers who’ve rechristened the place McMoon’s. These self-described techno-archaeologists have been on a mission to recover and digitize forgotten photos taken in the ‘60s by a quintet of scuttled lunar satellites.

The Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project has since 2007 brought some 2,000 pictures back from 1,500 analog data tapes. They contain the first high-resolution photographs ever taken from behind the lunar horizon, including the first photo of an earthrise (first slide above). Thanks to the technical savvy and DIY engineering of the team at LOIRP, it’s being seen at a higher resolution than was ever previously possible.

“We’re reaching back to a capability that existed but couldn’t be touched back when it was created,” says Keith Cowing, co-lead and founding member at LOIRP. “It’s like having a DVD in 1966, you can’t play it. We had resolution of the earth of about a kilometer [per pixel]. This is an image taken a quarter of a fucking million miles away in 1966. The Beatles were warming up to play Shea Stadium at the moment it was being taken.”

Between 1966 and ’67, five Lunar Orbiters snapped pictures onto 70mm film from about 30 miles above the moon. The satellites were sent mainly to scout potential landing sites for manned moon missions. Each satellite would point its dual lens Kodak camera at a target, snap a picture, then develop the photograph. High- and low-resolution photos were then scanned into strips called framelets using something akin to an old fax machine reader.

The images were beamed in modulated signals to one of three receiving stations in Australia, Spain, or California, where the pictures–and collateral chatter from the NASA operators–were recorded straight to tape. After finishing their missions, the satellites were unceremoniously dashed against the moon rocks, clearing the way for Apollo. 

“These guys were operating right at the edge,” Cowing says with a reverence for these NASA engineers that’s shared by his team. “There’s a certain spy program heritage to all this, but these guys went above that, because those spy satellites would send their images back. These didn’t. They couldn’t. They were in lunar orbit.”

The photos were stored with remarkably high fidelity on the tapes, but at the time had to be copied from projection screens onto paper, sometimes at sizes so large that warehouses and even old churches were rented out to hang them up. The results were pretty grainy, but clear enough to identify landing sites and potential hazards. After the low-fi printing, the tapes were shoved into boxes and forgotten.

They changed hands several times over the years, almost getting tossed out before landing in storage in Moorpark, California. Several abortive attempts were made to recover data from the tapes, which were well kept, but it wasn’t until 2005 that NASA engineer Keith Cowing and space entrepreneur Dennis Wingo were able to bring the materials and the technical know how together.

When they learned through a Usenet group that former NASA employee Nancy Evans might have both the tapes and the super-rare Ampex FR-900 drives needed to read them, they jumped into action. They drove to Los Angeles, where the refrigerator-sized drives were being stored in a backyard shed surrounded by chickens. At the same time, they retrieved the tapes from a storage unit in nearby Moorpark, and things gradually began to take shape. Funding the project out of pocket at first, they were consumed with figuring out how to release the images trapped in the tapes.

“We’re both Apollo babies, so the moon to us was something that’s unfinished business,” says Cowing. 

“These tapes were sealed for history by somebody who cared, and it was astonishing the condition they were in. So we started buying used parts on eBay, Radioshack–I was sitting at a black tie reception at one point buying something on my iPhone. We just buy and reassemble these things bit by bit.”

The drives had to be rebuilt and in some cases completely re-engineered using instruction manuals or the advice of people who used to service them. The data they recovered then had to be demodulated and digitized, which added more layers of technical difficulties.


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