What you see: Original, first-generation NASA videotape recordings of the Apollo 11 moon walk and subsequent events. Sotheby’s estimates the three reels of tape at $1 million to $2 million.
The expert: Cassandra Hatton, vice president and senior specialist for books and manuscripts at Sotheby’s.
How do we know these are the only surviving first-generation recordings of the Apollo 11 moon walk? Let me add a word in there: only surviving first-generation NASA recordings of the Apollo 11 moon walk. That’s important. The way these tapes were created was the images were sent from the moon and captured in California and Australia, and those images were recorded onto slow-scan tapes that took up 45 reels. The information on the 45 reels were scanned onto two-inch AMPEX reels, of which there are only three. What was seen at Houston and NASA mission control is what is on those tapes. NASA was the first place to receive the images [from ground stations in Australia and California], and they were then sent to various television stations around the world. With each subsequent bounce from station to station, [the images] degraded each time. What you saw live on TV was a lower quality than what was on these tapes.
So it–the TV images of the moon walk–were like a photocopy of a photocopy? Kind of, yeah. How we know these are the only surviving original first-generation NASA tapes is they were sold at a government surplus auction in 1976. The selling body was NASA. Many years later, when NASA searched for the slow-scan tapes, the 45 reels couldn’t be found. Then they discovered, unfortunately, that they had been erased and recorded over. The slow-scan tapes were the best tapes until the moment they were recorded over. Then the ones we’re selling became the best-surviving tapes because they’re the only NASA recording left.
Do we know when the 45 reels of slow-scan tapes were erased and recorded over? Nobody knows, but it’s safe to assume NASA had not discovered that, or had not erased the tapes when they sold [this set of three tapes] in a government auction. My guess is they would not have sold them if they realized [the slow-scan tapes] were erased or would be erased.
So it was safe for NASA to sell the trio of tapes in 1976 because they had, or reasonably believed they had, the slow-scan tapes? Yes. It was not a negative for NASA to sell them, because they had a superior copy.
When did NASA discover that the slow-scan tapes had been erased? In 2008 or 2009, around the time of the 40th moon walk anniversary.
That must have been a gut punch, to realize the slow-scan tapes of the first moon walk were gone. I’m sure it was because of budget cuts. Around the period of the [1970s] energy crisis, federal buildings were required to turn the air-conditioning off if there were no employees there on the weekend. The tapes in one building in Texas were found covered in mold [as a result of the energy conservation directive]. I’m sure it spurred the sale of the tapes. They couldn’t store them properly, so sell them and get some money out of them or throw them in the trash.
The press release also describes the tapes as “unrestored, unenhanced, and unremastered.” Does that mean that other period tapes of the moon walk have suffered that fate? Yes. When NASA discovered the slow-scan tapes had been erased, they decided to use other footage for the 40th anniversary. That footage was made sharper, crisper, more viewable. But once you restore something, you change it. It’s no longer in its original condition, and that has an impact from an artifactual and a value standpoint. Everything about these tapes is original, untouched, and unenhanced. I sat and watched every second of every reel. It’s exactly what mission control saw as it was happening.
Ok, so we’ve established that NASA had no reason to believe they were giving away a gem when they consigned these tapes to auction, but this isn’t the first time that the government has unwittingly or accidentally sold a priceless artifact of the space race. Why does this keep happening? You’ve got to remember what NASA is and what its purpose is. They’re engineers. Not archivists. Not librarians. If you want archivists, there’s a specific degree and training you need. They have done their best to archive material, but after all, it’s a government agency, and it’s not funded as much as it could be. They’re not a museum. They’re a space agency. If they hired someone to oversee all their artifacts before they go into a GSA auction, that’d be great.
But they’d need more than one person to do that… They’d have to have an army. People make a living out of paying attention to these sales. It’s impossible to go over every item to make sure it’s not super-valuable. The amount of research we did on this…
How long did it take you to research this lot? Days? I couldn’t even quantify it in days.
Because you’re picking it up and putting it down… And discussing, and reading books and articles, and watching videos, and talking to colleagues, and scratching my head. It does take quite a lot of time. We put quite a lot of thought into it. It’s very much a team effort.
So Gary George bought the lot, which contained over 1,000 videotapes, for $217.77 in 1976, and he could have sold any one of those tapes for $200 at the time. That was exactly what he was doing. He was an intern at NASA, and a lot of interns, for fun, would go to government surplus auctions. George said he bought himself a sports car with the money he made. They were guys in their twenties, being entrepreneurial. He hit the jackpot, but he didn’t realize it at first.
When did George find the trio of tapes within the larger group? He filled three U-Haul trucks [with tapes] and stored them in his parents’ garage. He sold them as quickly as he could. It was his dad who said, “Those tapes say ‘Apollo 11 EVA July 20 1969’ on them. Maybe you should keep them.” His dad really saved those tapes. George was a young guy. He was going to resell them.
I guess George thought NASA couldn’t have done something so silly as to sell tapes that record the first moon walk? Yeah. At that point, he held onto them, close to when he bought them. It was not until 2006 or 2007, when NASA was hunting for the slow-scan tapes, that he saw them and thought, “Gee, maybe I have something that’s important.”
When did you and your colleagues at Sotheby’s learn about the tapes? George reached out to us recently, in 2018.
I’ve heard tell of badly stored nitrate films from the silent era bursting into flame. Do these tapes pose a similar risk? Luckily, that’s not an issue here. I think post-1965, most were recorded using safety film. It will eventually degrade, but it is in remarkable condition. [When I brought it to an engineer who owned a device that could play it,] I didn’t tell them what it was. They spontaneously said, “Wow.” They kept remarking on the quality and how sharp the image was. Just by looking, they were able to tell me the tape was an original–I didn’t tell them it was an original. I was just a weird lady who came into the office with tapes she wanted to play.
Will the winning bidder need to hunt down a period AMPEX videotape device to watch these reels? No. They’ve been digitized in a super-high-resolution manner and saved onto a one-terabyte hard drive and a thumb drive. You can watch the hard drive or the thumb drive and keep the reels as artifacts. It’s kind of like having the manuscript, a first edition, and a paperback of the same book. You read the paperback, and the manuscript and the first edition stay on the shelf. I always bring it back to books…
I apologize if this is a silly question, but did NASA shoot these videos in black and white? Not that that makes much difference on the lunar surface, which is pretty close to black-and-white as it is. They’re in both. In the opening footage, you see engineers in mission control, and that’s in color. On the lunar surface, it’s black and white. [It might have been] because they didn’t have the capability to broadcast color from the moon, and because most people had black and white televisions [in 1969].
And to clarify–these are NOT three reels from the missing 45. These are separate and different yes? They are not three from the 45, but they represent what’s on the 45 reels. This is the complete EVA [extra-vehicular activity]. I can only imagine what the quality would have been if they’d taken up the 45 reels. Maybe there was a little extra, but who knows? The 45 reels have been erased. But the content should be the same.
Again, apologies for what might be a silly question, but I feel I should clarify–the winner gets the physical things in the lot, and does not receive copyright or control over the images shown on the three reels, yes? We’re just selling the tapes themselves as artifacts. The content is in the public domain. There is no copyright. If you want to make and sell t-shirts [with these images], you’ve got to ask permission [from NASA].
Is there anything about these tapes that doesn’t come across in the photos? For example, how heavy are they? They are very heavy. Each reel weighs about 15 pounds. They were too heavy for one person to carry all three on the airline.
It hadn’t occurred to me that you had to fly the tapes to New York. How did that work? It was complicated to get them on the plane. At security, they could have been demagnetized, because they’re magnetic tapes. We had to flag them for special screening, so they weren’t brought anywhere near magnetic machines. I viewed them on the East coast to be sure they didn’t get erased between the West coast and getting here.
It must have been a relief to watch the tapes and realize they’d arrived safely. It was a tense moment, watching the engineer spool it up on the machine. It was nerve-wracking. But I realized what a nerd I really am–it started, and I narrated it. I really know this mission!
Why will this lot stick in your memory? When I watched the tapes, I was surprised, because I started tearing up. The engineer spooling the tapes started tearing up. His wife started tearing up. It has such an impact on people. I’ve sold a lot of cool things that flew to the moon, but this represents what all that effort was for. This is the primary witness to the moment we worked for. It really is representative of man’s greatest achievement. It’s the original artifact from the agency that made it possible. It all comes back to the moments captured on these tapes.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Images are courtesy of Sotheby’s.
In a NASA story about the search for the slow-scan tapes that mentions this trio of videotapes, the agency states, “If the tapes are as described in the sale material, they are 2-inch videotapes recorded in Houston from the video that had been converted to a format that could be broadcast over commercial television and contain no material that hasn’t been preserved at NASA.”
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