One Small Step for NASA, One Giant Leap For SpectrumData

In 1969, information landed from the realms of Apollo 11 and the Moon into the hands of a Sydney based physicist. How that information wound up in Western Australia, only to be rescued by a local vendor to eventually reach the NASA headqu...

One Small Step for NASA, One Giant Leap For SpectrumData

By Angela Priestley

CASE STUDY: In 1969, information landed from the realms of Apollo 11 and the Moon into the hands of a Sydney based physicist. How that information wound up in Western Australia, only to be rescued by a local vendor to eventually reach the NASA headquarters in the United States, is its own epic expedition…

Once upon a time on the dark side of the moon

Professor Brian O’Brien designed his Lunar Dust Detector Experiment on the back of the coaster and a paper napkin that accompanied his Scotch and mixed-nuts. He sketched his design at an altitude of 35,000 feet flying above America’s Midwest on the journey from Los Angeles to Houston. Having just met the Apollo 11 team, his creative juices were running and his impact on space exploration beginning to take shape.

Shortly after Neil Armstrong made his first steps on the Moon in 1969, O’Brien’s experiment was set in motion: His Lunar Dust Detector instrument was placed on the Moon where it generated data on the Moon’s dust activity and surface temperature that would be analysed and catalogued on tapes back on Earth. NASA sent O’Brien copies of the tapes who inturn assisted in their analysis. Once the experiment was finalised, O’Brien took his tapes, along with his family, on the long train from Sydney to Perth where he entrusted the data to a friend in the Physics Department at the Curtin University of Technology.

But when O’Brien read a notice on the NASA Apollo 11 website that NASA had misplaced its tapes of the Lunar Dust Detector data, he realised his copies of the tapes would be the only information available on a project initiated almost four decades ago. Acknowledging the data’s historical importance and potential impact for future expeditions, he conducted his own search of the University, located the 200 duplicate magnetic tapes, then realised the final hurdle could not be accomplished alone.

Unravelling a lunar experiment

After 37 years in storage in the Physics Department, the tapes hadn’t been touched and their condition, questionable. It’s now up the Perth-based SpectrumData to recover the data and ensure the media’s integrity before it’s sent over to NASA. Luckily for O’Brien, his life’s work appears to be in good hands, the data recovery and specialist data storage company’s resume includes data missions stretching from Sri Lanka to Ethiopia and New Zealand; the Moon will provide just one more tick in the box of regions the vendor has conquered.

Guy Holmes, SpectrumData’s CEO and a physicist in his own right, met with O’Brien and his Curtin colleague to discuss the mission ahead. So intrigued by the work of the two men, Holmes got as close to the project as possible. “I literally went myself and pulled these tapes down three of four flights of stairs,” Holmes says on his effort to accompany the two men in personally retrieving the tapes from the University. “They really are an incredible bunch of guys to sit and talk with.”

While NASA had lost the original information, the copies O’Brien had entrusted to the WA University evoked it’s own set of challenges. For one, their home at the academic institution did not exactly provide the specialised tape storing environment required for storing tapes across the ages. “Lets just say, they were stored in an interesting location,” says Holmes who is hesitant to state exactly how and where they were stored. “They were well looked after, put in a place that was actually a good place to put them,” he says.

So with the actual tapes recovered, what work is there for SpectrumData in unravelling their precious information? Holmes says the first step is to determine the tape’s manufacture. Obsolescence is a prime concern for record keepers in the future, primarily because of its impact on the past. While tape is often considered immune to the threat, its varying formats and manufacturing specifics will ultimately impact on its ability to survive. “We see the best brand of tape in the worst storage condition and the tape is fine,” says Holmes. “But we also see the worst brands of tape in the best storage conditions and the tape is crap.”

For SpectrumData, tape deterioration is not only an aspect of everyday work but a rollercoaster ride through the ages. While brand is important, age can more often then not, mean everything. “There can be a big difference in when the tape was made and when it is actually used,” says Holmes. “The most important part is when it was made.” Holmes points to a period during the 80s when tape manufacturers got smug with their creations. There is a four year gap, between 1980 and 1984 when manufactures chased the ultimate tape length utopia by applying extra length to the spiel. “So they made the tape thinner, so used less of the stuff that makes it good. They ended up creating a bit of a monster,” says Holmes.

The process all happens in the tape’s new home, SpectrumData’s purpose-built security vault in Technology Park, Bentley WA. “We will sort them into logical order from day one of the moon mission through to re-entry of the craft into the Earth’s atmosphere,” says Holmes. “The labels on the tapes, many of which are fading, will then be digitally photographed to preserve the content.” Pending on the tape’s manufacture and age, SpectrumData will then establish the best move forward for processing the tapes.

With tapes placed in chronological order, SpectrumData classifies them as either high, medium or low risk. According to their risk factor, the tapes will be heated in chambers for 48 to 72 hours to dry out their moisture before being they are unravelled the ravelled at an extremely low speed. Only then will SpectrumData make attempts at reading the data, which according to Holmes, evokes a whole new set of problems. “If we get data off the tape, it’s likely to be multiplexed format, it will be a jigsaw to put back together, we have to reverse engineer the format,” he says.

With the process only recently set in action, the overall prognosis looks good. “From our initial assessment of the tapes they appear to be in relatively good condition for their age,” says Holmes

Good news for NASA

So after ‘misplacing’ their original copies, just how important is the data to NASA and the future of space exploration? “NASA research teams at Kennedy Space Centre in Florida are interested in the data,” says Dr O’Brien. “One group is making computer models of possible dust and debris that might be thrown up in future landings and departures on the Moon.”

The recovery of the data could also provide the opportunity for Australia to once again secure its involvement in future missions to the Moon. “It seems like that in any future human visits to the Moon and Mars to place scientific experiments there, the lessons learnt from the little Luna Dust Detector will no be ignored,” says O’Brien.

Scientists at the Kennedy Space Centre are currently using theoretical models and guesswork for their research into future landings on the Moon and Mars. Once NASA again receives the information, O’Brien’s research will no doubt fill some of the gaps in the future of Moon and Mars expeditions.

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