Spaced Out


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This month, Charles Simonyi—Microsoft's former chief architect, the man behind its most famous applications as well as the method of writing code the company's programmers have used for 25 years—is headed for space. His ticket to ride cost a cool $20 million. Don't think that's how I'd spend that kind of cash, but then again he earned his billions with the kind of programming genius I can't begin to comprehend, so I don't think our thought processes are comparable.

He's slated to be the fifth day-tripper to visit the International Space Station and plans to document his adventure online with a blog, pictures, an "Ask Charles" forum, and more (www.nerdinspace.com). I bet there will be a good-size audience for some vicarious thrill riding. On the other hand, despite the novelty of civilian space travel and Simonyi's cyber-extended nerd entourage, I can't quite picture whole families huddled around the computer to watch.

Times have changed since every person in America who could get to a TV gathered to watch Neil Armstrong take those immortal first steps on the moon. I was too young to remember seeing the live broadcast, but I know that video footage: grainy, choppy, murky. And no less stirring for its low fidelity.

Everyone knows Armstrong's name, but even those who might recognize Simonyi's probably don't know the name of the über-geek who was charged with delivering video from the moon. Stan Lebar is the name of the (now) 81-year-old who found a way to overcome hurdles like G force pressure on a camera and restrictions on the portion of the broadcast spectrum available for use. To overcome the latter, Lebar helped devise a small "oddball format" to transmit back to tracking stations on earth, which would convert it for TV broadcast, and beam it to Mission Control.

Yet according to an article in the February issue of Wired magazine, that video footage was actually recorded in far better resolution than what the world saw on TV (or that I saw in school). As it turns out, Lebar himself has never seen that raw feed. He'd always wondered why the broadcast didn't look as good as the format he developed, but since the viewing public was satisfied, so was he.

At a NASA Apollo 11 mission reunion a few years ago, a couple of folks came bearing still photos they'd taken of the images on the monitors at the transfer stations—of the original footage. They were surprisingly good. The video quality, as it turns out, had severely degraded during conversion for TV. Great news, right? Let's go back for some revisionist history and take a look at the instant replay!

The amazing punchline, which can't be better encapsulated than in Wired's headline, "One Giant Screwup for Mankind," is that NASA can't locate that original footage. I've never read a better argument for digital archiving. Who wouldn't want to get a gander at that historic footage in significantly higher resolution? Despite years of effort on the part of Lebar and his colleagues, the footage has yet to be unearthed.

Unfortunately, it isn't just a question of a better search engine, either. The 14-inch reel of magnetic tape, high-tech circa 1969, may have been degaussed (erased) for reuse. It is also possible that this historic footage is sitting in a cardboard box stacked with others in piles that climb to the ceiling in one of many NASA warehouses, or worse, sitting unmarked and unappreciated in someone's office. While the footage may have been stored, NASA has no central database or administrator to track what comes in and out of NASA's storage facilities.

According to Wired, the moonwalk sleuths' most recent—and best—lead points to the footage likely buried amidst the rubble of the soon-to-be-closed Data Evolution Lab. Is it just me, or is there something ironic about NASA's cost-cutting efforts slating this particular lab for decommission?

If space tourism is the way we're going to fund the future of the space program, I'm all for earmarking some millions for active archiving and making this vintage footage—and the mountains more that is lost in storage space—available for a new generation of space monkeys.