NASA Data Rescued From Digital Dark Ages

NASA Data Rescued From Digital Dark Ages

By Greg McNevin

November 11, 2008: SpectrumData has saved a wealth of unique data from NASA’s Apollo moon missions from oblivion, after 173 data tapes were recovered from an archive in Perth following nearly 40 years in storage.

The tapes contain data on lunar dust collected by the Apollo 11, 12 and 14 missions from 1969 to 1971, information which could have been lost forever were it not for the discovery and the donation by the Australian Computer Museum.

Perth physicist Dr Brian O'Brien invented the “dust detectors” that were used on the Apollo missions, all of the data from which was transmitted back to earth and stored on these tapes, and tapes at NASA.

O’Brien published several papers on lunar dust, however, his findings failed to arouse much interest so his work was eventually put on the backburner and the tapes sent to storage. In 2006 NASA announced that it had lost its copies, however, fortunately Dr O’Brien’s were still safe and sound after being in storage for over 40 years.

“These were the only active measurements of moon dust made during the Apollo missions, and no-one thought it was important,” Dr O’Brien told the ABC. “But it's now realised that dust, to quote Harrison Schmitt, who was the last astronaut to leave the moon, is the number one environmental problem on the moon.”

In a sign of the digital dark ages to come, the problem was getting the data – which is now quite valuable due to NASA aspirations to return to the moon – as while the tapes are intact, the means to read them is no longer readily available.

Fortunately, SpectrumData managed to track down a 1971 IBM729 Mark 5 tape drive at the Australian Computer Museum. While the drive needs some work, the company is confident that it will be up and running and reading data by January 2009.

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