Ummm, Houston, you erased WHAT?

800px-apollo11tv5NASA held a press conference today,  on the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
They took great pains to explain exactly how the video from the moon was converted and relayed around the world. And they attempted to explain how the original data tapes of the slowscan data had been lost, and probably erased. They discussed and showed some of the work Lowry Digital has been doing to clean up the existing video tapes of the historic footage.  Lowry is famous for having done similar restoration work on many of Hollywood’s greatest classic films,  many of which suffered similar losses of original material.   I was amazed to find out that the original slow-scan tapes were recorded in a very familiar format, which struck very close to home!

FR600 shown at NASA Goddard
FR600 shown at NASA Goddard

NASA said that the original 500 khz slow-scan data was recorded on one track of a 14-track tape that was running at 120 ips.  They even showed one of the reels of 1″ tape on a 14″ reel.

When I was Chief Engineer at the University of Mississippi Media Center , we had gotten a grant from NASA, not for cash but for surplus equipment.  We went to Huntsville, Alabama and were allowed to go through 6 warehouses (out of some 50) and tag items we thought we could use.  There were some amazing things there, including physical models and mock-ups for all kinds of spacecraft and satellites, which we did not feel we could justify, but in hindsight would have been a goldmine today!
Having had such success with my TRT find,  (see the previous post) I was intrigued to find some big 1″ multitrack recorders.  Again, they appeared to have been pushed over on their face by a careless fork-lift operator.  The warehouse supervisor who was accompanying us on our tour asked me if I wanted them.  I said I was very interested but could not justify them for the University.  He said, “No, I asked if YOU wanted them.”  I was confused.  He said his crew had “mishandled” them and that even though they had been in good working condition he had had to fill out lots of paperwork and they were now considered scrap metal.  But he couldn’t seem to get rid of them.
He said if I’d tag them, he’d make sure that they were loaded on our truck when it arrived.
Sure enough, the truck arrived months later and the machines were onboard, but not on any of the paperwork.   We offloaded them to the Media Center, where I worked, and eventually I ended up with them standing in my living room.   (I was single at the time! 🙂
My Ampex FR-600s
My Ampex FR-600s
I wanted to get them working for multitrack  audio but they had no erase heads.  The racks had a built-in heavy-duty automatic bulk eraser that did a very thorough job.  You got one shot, record, rewind, play or off to storage.  There were even a half-dozen tapes, with nasa labels, exactly like the tape they showed today at the press conference!
The machines were Ampex FR-600s, and were built like a tank!  They used compressed air to all the tape guides, and had an amazing optical/pneumatic reel servo that sensed tape tension by the back pressure on the various tape guides.  They had nylon strap belts that could be changed for various speeds, up to 120 ips, and huge beautifully machined brass capstan flywheels.  There were shelves with analog or FM record and playback modules and a switching matrix to select any R/P head to any electronics module so you could mix baseband tracks with FM.  I made many audio recordings with them and the frequency response and noise figure was quite impressive!  I remember thinking it was odd that there were only 14 tracks, but I guess that was the NASA spec!
I kept the machines for many years but eventually had to get rid of them because they were so huge and heavy and…. well, useless. I do still have a complete set of Ampex manuals for this machine.
In the press conference this morning they said that  the original slow-scan tapes that were lost were on 14″ reels of 1″ tape on 14-track tape recorded at 120 ips! The slow-scan video was on one of the 14 tracks.  My brother Alan works for NASA in Huntsville, and I have seen some 1″ 14 track machines still in use there today, but they are not Ampex.  I believe the brand I saw on them was Bell & Howell.
I also remember having several of those big tapes, with NASA labels that came with the machines.   I had the impression that they had a program to degauss and recertify and re-use them, but I also had the impression that that most of them just went to surplus properties warehouses and were probably sold for scrap or destroyed.
The restoration work Lowry Digital is doing is all from videotapes that came from the CRT rescan converter.  If you’ve ever aimed your video camera at a TV set, you know how much quality you lose.  Thats basically how the slow-scan converter worked.  There was a standard TV camera re-photographing the slow-scan CRT.   Thats partly why the video looks so bad.  There is only so much you can do to undo those kinds of artifacts.  The data from the slow-scan tapes would be much much sharper and amenable to digital processing, but alas, NASA has concluded that the tapes were erased.
As one of the press members said, “You’d think somebody would have put a big note on the reels or something saying “IMPORTANT, DO NOT ERASE!”
You’d think!…..As the song goes –
“Don’t it always seem to go  that you don’t know what you’ve got till its gone!”
Anyway, I can’t believe I actually owned 2 FR600s for awhile!
From the FR600 manual
From the FR600 manual
From the FR600 manual
From the FR600 manual

6 thoughts on “Ummm, Houston, you erased WHAT?”

  1. In the 1960’s I worked on a system which used Ampex FR 600’s to play back Minuteman PCM telemetry data. I have a 14″ reel of tape for one of these machines which I am going to use in a local historical display. Can you help my memory out a little?
    How much tape did a 14″ reel hold?
    At what speeds did a FR 600 operate? (I seem to recall using them at 60 ips)
    What bandwidth did a FR 600 support for record and playback?
    Any help would be greatly appreciated.
    Frank Perkins
    Melbourne, FL

    1. Frank:
      My FR-600s ran at 7.5, 15, 30 and 60 ips. My recollection is that at 60ips the response was fairly flat up to 120khz. The machines had modular playback and record electronics, and there were FM modules as well as the direct record ones. The FM modules could then record DC but had worse high frequency response due to Nyquist. I seem to recall the FR-600s used 1 mil tape and had 3600′ to a reel. I was real impressed with the huge brass capstan flywheels and reel servo motors. I just remember wondering… why 14 tracks instead of the recording industry standard of 16 tracks. I guess the NASA contract specified it that way. I believe there were compatible 1″ 14 track machines made by Bell & Howell and maybe Brush?

  2. Funny, I watched your video about the “Getting a 2″ Quad Videotape to Play” ( and my mind immediately thought about this old article I had seen about the Apollo 11 moon landing videos being lost in some undecipherable format, and I thought to myself, gosh, I wonder if this guy would have some insight into a work-around for NASA. Sure enough…

    Love your site, Dave. All the Scanimate stuff really show how much the tools of the trade can define the look and feel of an entire generation of mass media.

  3. Replace Charlie Sheen and its going to last for a couple of shows…..!!!!I love the show, but its nothing without Charlie..and he deserve all the money … )Keep on rocking Charlie!!!!, but stay of the hard drugs

  4. Hi Dave
    I was hoping you could forward this message and my email to Michael Baker, who left a message on your blog about a FR-600 his friend acquired. We are restoring a piece of NASA telemetry equipment, and are looking for a FR recorder to replace the missing one. Many thanks sir, I am enjoying the stories on your blog 🙂


  5. Glad I found your site–my friend just acquired an Ampex Fr 600 along with some other recording studio stuff and neither one of us knew what this machine was–This explains it all–big thanx to you! (It sure is heavy!)

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