Data Preservation Prior to the Digital Age–The Apollo 11 Tapes Example

Oftentimes I will see people online lament how difficult it is to store and maintain data archives, with the implicit (and sometimes explicit) claim being that analog media did not suffer this sort of problem.

On the one hand, some people just don’t realize how much of the world’s printed, filmed, photographed and recorded artifacts have been irrevocably lost. There is some debate over the figure, but it is estimated that less than 10 percent of classical writings survived to our era.

Closer to our moment in time, a full seventy-five percent of the movies made in the silent era are believed to have been lost forever

Even extremely important records of the last half century have been lost or nearly lost, in large part due to changes in analog technologies and an occasional failure of imagination to understand the importance of human knowledge artifacts.

For example, 20,000 hours of audio recordings of the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon came perilously close to being lost forever.

The hunt began after John Hansen, an electrical engineering researcher at the University of Texas at Dallas, contacted NASA with a request for audio. Hansen was leading a project to develop speech technology to parse long audio recordings of groups solving problems and was looking for test data. The Apollo audio fit the bill, but the next challenge was presented by mid-20th-century analog technology.

The existing tapes could be played only on a machine called a SoundScriber, a big beige and green contraption complete with vacuum tubes. NASA had two machines, but the first was cannibalized for parts to make the second one run.

“There is literally just one machine left on the planet that can decode [the audio]” said Abhijeet Sangwan, a researcher at UT Dallas who also worked on the project.

. . .

Once everything was operational, an undergraduate student ran the machine five days a week for months in order to capture all the audio from the Apollo 11 tapes, as well as most of the tapes from Apollo 13, Apollo 1 and the earlier Gemini 8. (The audio from Apollos 1 and 13 and Gemini 8 has not yet been cleared for release, and the researchers are now trying to get support to digitize the remaining Apollo 13 data.)

Preserving digital data and ensuring that the data will be able to retrieved and accessed in a meaningful way 10, 50 and even 100 years from now is certainly a challenge. But it is a challenge because preserving any human knowledge over long periods of time is an inherently challenging task.

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