The original film footage of astronaut Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon, one of the most important artifacts of the 20th century, has been lost.
The television broadcast seen by about 600 million people in July 1969 is preserved for posterity, but the original tapes from which the footage was taken have been mislaid, most likely in NASA's vast archives at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.
The footage could transform our view of the moon landings, offering images far sharper than the blurred, grainy video shown around the world. It also could lay to rest the conspiracy theory that the landings were faked on a Hollywood soundstage.
Despite its iconic status, the television footage was the equivalent of a photocopy of a photocopy. It came from a camera that had been pointed at a black-and-white monitor on Earth. The image on the monitor, in turn, had been stripped of much of its detail.
Those tapes, although nowhere near the standard of normal television transmissions, would be of far better quality than the video we have today, especially if processed using modern digital techniques.
Rather than prizing the tapes as vital recordings, NASA simply filed them away. As personnel retired or died, the location of the tapes was forgotten.
Such problems are not unique to NASA.
"I just think this is what happens when you have a large government bureaucracy that functions for decade after decade," said Keith Cowing, editor of the Web site NASAWatch.com. "It's not malicious or intentional, but I think it's unfortunate that NASA doesn't have maybe just one more person whose job it is to look back at its history."
Goddard is also home to the only equipment that can still play the tapes, which use an obsolete 14-inch format -- equipment that was due to be dismantled in October until [a senior engineer at NASA] intervened.
Update, Aug. 15: The Washington Post also reports:
"We haven't seen them for quite a while. We've been looking for over a year, and they haven't turned up," [NASA spokesman Grey] Hautaloma said.
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