Trivia

Hard

In The 2000s, Footage From The Original Lunar Orbiters Was Digitized In A Former?

Nuclear Bunker
Airplane Hangar
DMV Office
McDonald's
A comparison of an old and restored version of a famous photo from the Lunar Orbiters.
NASA/Wikimedia

Answer: McDonald’s

In the 1960s, Lunar Orbiters circled the Moon and beamed back images of the Moon’s surface and, blurry or not, the public ate it up as America was deep into the Space Race and people loved all things space exploration related. What nobody knew at the time, however, is that the images they were shown were paltry down-sampled examples of what the Lunar Orbiters could actually do.

The Lunar Orbiters had top-grade spy-level cameras on them that were so sharp, NASA purposely chose to not release the full-resolution photos to the public at the time for fear Russian agents would gain an understanding of just how sophisticated American cameras were (and, in fact, U.S. intelligence agencies had helped NASA with the orbiter cameras).

Time marched forward and once the transmissions from the orbiters, stored on magnetic tapes, had served their purpose—which was helping NASA scientists examine the Moon in intense detail to select a perfect landing site for the Moon missions—the crates of tape reels were, more or less, shoved in a storage facility and forgotten about.

After decades of neglect and gathering dust, a team of former and current dedicated NASA employees set about the herculean task of not only assembling all the magnetic tapes together into one place, but restoring and digitizing the original images by linking old computers used with the original projects to modern computers. The part where today’s bit of trivia comes in is where they ended up working on the project.

The team set up shop in an abandoned McDonald’s building just outside NASA’s Ames Research Facilities in Mountain View, CA. They nicknamed the facility McMoon’s, parked the ancient computers where the customers used to dine, washed and repaired old computer parts in the kitchen, and stored the piles and piles of magnetic tapes where the cooking equipment had previously sat. You can read about the project and see the results of the team’s efforts at the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project website.

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