.Supersizing the Moon

Working out of an abandoned McDonald's, scientists at Moffett Field are restoring humanity's first lunar portraits

During NASA’s Lunar Orbiter missions, the space agency captured the very first “Earthrise” image. Photo courtesy of LOIRP/NASA

Amnesia is baked into our economy’s dependence on planned obsolescence. Once last year’s suite of electronic devices makes one trip around the sun, a new fleet of shinier gizmos is ushered in. As the years go by, information gets trapped by the medium that was previously in vogue. VCRs break down, CD players fade into obscurity, and those little ear buds with the white cord no longer plug into your handset. VHS tapes and compact discs become artifacts housed in the basement archives of museums.

This can happen even when the information is of monumental historical significance. The single most titanic deed of the 1960s—the first human landing on the Moon, followed by the safe retrieval of the voyagers—was counterpointed later by forgetfulness, budget cuts and political squawking.

In preparation for the Apollo missions, NASA carried out a little-remembered series of Moon-mapping missions from 1966-67. Over the course of these satellite expeditions, the space agency captured some of the first images of Earth from The Moon—snapping the very first “Earthrise” photo, and recording the pockmarked lunar surface in high resolution.

The images were then considered top secret and locked away, only to be upstaged by footage from the manned lunar landing. The glorious 35mm and 16mm images taken during the course of the Apollo missions weren’t developed until 1989. The footage was woven into the documentary For All Mankind. That’s when we at last saw something of what the astronauts saw, in crisp color instead of fuzzy black and white, touched with cathode flares.

So what happened to those first images of the lonely, uninhabited moon? The New Museum Los Gatos, a.k.a. NUMU, will tell that story at their new exhibit, “McMoons: How a Band of Scientists Saved Lunar Image History.” The show, opening Sept. 23, details the restoration work of a group stationed at a former McDonald’s on the NASA Ames campus in Mountain View.

Working out of their “McMoon” facility, the crowdfunded Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project aims to retrieve and restore the original images taken 50 years ago. These restored and digitized images—together comprising a mosaic of many smaller snaps pulled from myriad spools of magnetic tape—show a closeup portrait of Earth’s original satellite.

McMoons HQ Mackenzie “Casey” Harper stands outside the McMoons facility on the NASA Ames campus at Moffett Field. Photo by Greg Ramar

“Our technology is moving so fast that we can’t keep track of it,” says Amy Long, history curator at NUMU. “There are so many interesting facets to this show.”

For one, there’s the historic preservation element, Long says, noting an increasingly popular exhibition topic at museums all over the world. Apparently, the tapes containing these images were going to be tossed until an employee stepped up to preserve them for two decades. And, of course, there’s the space program. “How do you lose interest in the space program?” Long asks. “It’s like losing interest in The Beatles.”

LOIRP is based at NASA Ames at Moffett Field, the Silicon Valley airfield dominated by the lacey steel skeleton of the landmark Hangar One. After a few wrong turns, you can find 596 Edquiba Road. There stands the abandoned McDonald’s, shorn of its golden arches.

Inside is a kludged-together lab where the self-declared “techno-archaeologists” of LOIRP do their work. The building is a typical Mickey D’s, with a slanted roofs, freezer vaults, and dung-brown glazed brick flooring. The walk-in freezers are full of stacks and stacks of heavy tapes. Various and sundry equipment sits on metal shelves still labeled for chipotle and tartar sauce.

A pirate flag hangs in the front window. The Jolly Roger is explained by LOIRP’s Mackenzie “Casey” Harper and Marco Colleluori; Dennis Wingo, their leader, was out on business in Paris, where I’d phoned him a few days previously. Mackenzie says carefully: “The pirate flag is about not the things we weren’t allowed to do, but it’s about things that haven’t been overtly approved.”

When not recovering a definitive portrait of the Moon as it was a half a century ago, Wingo’s Skycorp became the first private company to command an interplanetary spaceship. Marco, who Mackenzie called “our propulsion person,” had figured out a way, with the help of volunteers around the world, to revive and reroute the moribund satellite IC3 so that it could study the tail of a comet.

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