The old programmers club has been trading big fish stories down below. One of the strangest ones about data lost and found is that of the the tapes from the Lunar Oribiter missions. The story itself has cast off its own conspiracy theories, of which more later, but a good summary is found on the Los Angeles Times. It's not exactly a secret, there are lots of links on the web, but it remains interesting in the context of data archiving. A forerunner to Apollo, the 1966-7 missions carried two fairly large telescope and images were recorded on 70 mm film which was read out on-board and sent to a NASA data center. The images, including that of the Earth, that were obtained were unprecedented. Unfortunately the data center used a rare type of military tape drive that soon became unobtainable, which meant that the tapes were unreadable.
An archivist at NASA, Nancy Evans, saved the tapes from destruction about 15 years later
This was an act of faith, because NASA had none of the 2 meter high (ever so SI we are here at Rabett Run) Ampex tape drives that were needed to read the tapes.
She talked her bosses at JPL into storing them in a lab warehouse. "I could not morally get rid of this stuff," said Evans, 71, in an interview at her Sun Valley home.
She had no idea what she was letting herself in for. The full collection of Lunar Orbiter data amounted to 2,500 tapes. Assembled on pallets, they constituted an imposing monolith 10 feet wide, 20 feet long and 6 feet high.
and there they sat. Over the years Evans kept applying for grants to repair the tape drives and read out the tapes to no avail. From Eli's personal experience on review panels, getting funding for archiving old data is neigh on impossible in the funding environment of the past forty years. Finally, in 2005, Evans gave a paper at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference which came to the attention of Dennis Wingo (yes, he comments on CA) and Keith Cowing. These two were able to raise some money, and get space at NASA Ames in an abandoned on base McDonalds. They also moved the tapes up from JPL. There, with the help of volunteers and Ken Zin, a NASA technician, who had worked with old tape drives they were able to salvage enough pieces from the drives to get one working (sometimes). Wingo has placed a slideshow on the web describing the project which is worth seeing.
One day in the late 1980s, she got a call from Eglin Air Force Base in Florida: "We heard you're looking for FR-900s. We've got three of them. Where do you want us to send them?"
Having already stretched her bosses' goodwill at JPL by storing the tapes there, she reluctantly agreed to take the drives herself. Evans stored the three tape drives from Eglin and a fourth she got off a salvage list -- none of which worked -- in her own garage.
This story has given rise to a number of INTERNET myths and amusing stories about the uses of Ebay for techno-archeology. There are some seriously crazy folk out there. Take care.