Hundreds Of Mystery Tapes Found In Dead Man’s Basement


More than 300 data reels, some from Apollo-Era missions, were discovered in a deceased Pennsylvania man’s basement, Freedom of Information Act reveal.

Just weeks before Christmas in 2015, NASA learned of a tantalizing discovery. In the basement of a deceased Pennsylvania man’s home sat 325 magnetic data reels and two enormous computers, each dating back to the Apollo Era of spaceflight, which put the first humans on the Moon.

The more than 40-year-old artifacts were in bad condition, but bore the markings of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and Jet Propulsion Laboratory. No one, except for maybe their last owner, knew what was on them.

NASA had received a tip from a metal scrapper—an acquaintance of the man—who said he was bequeathed the artifacts but “wanted to do the right thing,” and return them to the agency.

Some of the tapes were labeled Pioneer 8 and Pioneer 9; space weather missions that sent satellites into solar orbit as early as the mid-1960s. The Helios-A probe journeyed 46.5 million kilometers from the Sun, setting a record for the closest perihelion at that time.

Other tapes referenced the more famous Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 probes, responsible for our first detailed images of Jupiter and Saturn during the 1970s. Curiously, some former NASA researchers believe the latter is missing master data that’s yet to be recovered, one source told me.

For the next five months, staff at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, attempted to glean what was stored on the data reels. The investigation through a NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG) report was obtained using a Freedom of Information Act request. The name of the last owner of the tapes is redacted in the OIG report.

Goddard archivists looked for signs of value, conferring with scientists about whether any missions were missing data. In 2006, for instance, NASA confessed that it likely reused 45 tapes containing original footage of Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s iconic July 20, 1969 moonwalk. Even today, the spectre of the Apollo 11 tape blunder still looms over the agency.

“I should add that I keep using ‘Apollo’ as an example of what we would deem historically significant only because of the Apollo tape loss issue a few years ago,” wrote a Goddard employee whose name was redacted, to colleagues in April 2016, also noting they were “unable to find any labels that indicated Apollo content.”

But clearly, hope still lingers. “The stack does appear to be instrumentation analog tapes,” a NASA employee wrote in a different email about the tapes’ history. Whether the tapes contain original or copied data is unclear. Copies were often made as backups, or for extracting data and working with the results.

“If you only have one tape of the data and it is eaten by a tape drive, demagnetized by some buffer, coffee spilled on it…you have no data, so it is common to make some backup copies,” Larry Kellogg, a former NASA systems engineer who worked with Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 equipment, told me.

Approximately 215 reels were unlabeled, and NASA believes they may be blank, since labels were often removed before a tape was “scratched” or reused.

(Back then, magnetic tape was an expensive recording medium, and it wasn’t uncommon for NASA to overwrite reels as a cost-saving measure.) The labeled reels, however, could have been “copies of copies of copies,” Keith Cowing, a former NASA space biologist and editor at NASA Watch, told me.

“With this many tapes, I’ll bet they’re not original. But it doesn’t matter,” he added. “Someone has a library of data from these missions.”

Many details from the investigation are still fuzzy, and the names of everyone involved, including that of the collector, have been redacted under privacy exemptions. Source: Motherboard


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