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One giant leap for former fast-food joint

Inside a shuttered McDonald's at NASA Ames Research Center is a surreal scene: stacks of silver disc-shaped film canisters, an old reel-to-reel tape machine and the sound of NASA technicians talking during a 1960s mission to photograph the moon.

What is going on is a sort of archeology of the digital age, or "techno-archeology" as it is called by Dennis Wingo, the man in charge of the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery project. Wingo, CEO of Skycorp Inc., is the space industry entrepreneur who partnered with NASAWatch.com editor Keith Cowing to promote the project in 2008.

The 1,478 tape canisters stacked across the McDonald's kitchen floor are artifacts from NASA's unmanned moon missions in 1966 and 1967. The images were used to map NASA's 1969 moon landing but were set to be destroyed by a federal records center in Suitland, Md. when Wingo and his partners rescued them in 2007. What ensued was what is known as a NASA "pirate project" something that "comes out of left field and eventually gets funding," Wingo said. That term explains the pirate flag in the window of the McDonald's now known as "McMoon's."

There are 48,000 pounds of film -- the entire moon in 900 billboard size photos taken by the unmanned Lunar Orbiter spacecraft. Acting as something akin to a mini-Fotomat and TV station, the orbiter took Polaroid-like photos of the moon, scanned them and beamed them back to one of three stations on Earth where they were recoded on film.

Puzzle pieces

The key to reading the tapes was a lucky find: four rare, complete Ampex FR-900 rotary head tape recorders were found in the garage of retired NASA researcher Nancy Evans. The machines are 1960s Silicon Valley technology made in Redwood City, and the team hopes one will be placed soon in the Computer History Museum.

But the tape machine was only part of the puzzle. Because of the unique format of the tapes, the technology used to transfer the analog images to digital had to be almost created from scratch, and NASA's engineers said it couldn't be done for less than $6 million, if at all. With support from NASA Ames director Pete Worden, Wingo said NASA officials gave him $125,000 and a rent-free McDonald's building and said, "See what you can do."

Not only did the team figure out how to get the images off the film, it turned out that the 1966 images of the moon's surface, once digitally remastered, were of exceptional quality, comparable to NASA's most recent images of the moon.

Wingo said NASA has since found the LOIRP images useful in its recent moon projects, and allow a valuable comparison to newer images to see how the moon changes over time.

The images aren't all moon images. The first image publicly released by LOIRP in 2008 happened to be the iconic 1966 image known as "Earth rising" -- the first image of the earth from space. But this time the images is shown at a resolution that 1960s-era NASA couldn't achieve.

Another famous image that was remastered is of the crater Copernicus taken on Nov. 24, 1966. At the time it was hailed as the "picture of the century" as people were struck by the reality that the moon was formed by "tremendous forces of nature" as NASA administrator Oran W. Nicks put it.

Race against time

Four years and $700,000 later the team has gotten through one-third of the tapes, and is looking for private donations or NASA funding to finish the rest -- this year. Time is short as the tapes are gradually deteriorating.

The operation might exist in a McDonald's, but there's little about the project that could be characterized as fast food-like. There's a pride in the air about the quality of the work NASA did in the 1960s. Wingo points to pages and pages of "metadata" about each image, including the speed of the orbiter, and its distance from the moon is calculated to seven decimals, a standard of accuracy that is unheard of, Wingo said.

But what NASA didn't do in preserving and organizing the photos and data, LOIRP is doing now.

"We're organizing all the data they didn't organize back then," said intern and Foothill College student Newlynn Moss as she plunked down a 45-year-old book of data with pages that had apparently been nibbled on by rats. Wingo joked that he had to put his interns on "suicide watch" when they went through it all page by page, recording the data on a spreadsheet that can now be easily accessed by researchers "a hundred years from now," Wingo said.

If that weren't enough for her resume, Moss has been scanning each image, comparing them to newer images, to find craters made on the moon made since 1966. Wingo said NASA researchers can use that information to better determine the risk of asteroids hitting earth.

McMoon's

The McDonald's building is one of many shuttered buildings that once served a larger military presence at Moffett Field. The team has made use of almost all of its various nooks and crannies; the former manager's office is now the office of LOIRP's first hired intern, Austin Epps. The front counter is now the team's kitchen counter and the former dining area is now home to Wingo's desk and a pair of FR-900 machines. It took a while for the smell of Big Macs to go away, and Wingo said he's become so familiar with the building that he can instantly recognize another one from the same era.

The building just happened to be available when the project began in 2008 and someone suggested that the exhaust hoods for the fryers would be helpful for their work, sucking up the smoke from the soldering of electric components. Fortunately the team didn't take up the option of moving into a shuttered hair salon nearby instead, as the McDonald's building has drawn considerable attention to the project and provided a "wacky" atmosphere to work in.

Online conspiracy theorists have also jumped on the unusual operation, accusing the team of covering up a hidden base on the moon or colluding with NASA in covering up the moon landing "hoax."

"You know you are in a cool project when you are part of a conspiracy theory," Moss said.

For more information, LOIRP's official website is moonviews.com.

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