McMoons, Photoshop, and a Photographic Journey to the Far Side of the Moon

by Lex van den Berghe

posted on 10-20-2016

What significance do major scientific events hold without the ability to document and remember them? This was the question that spurred the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project (LOIRP), the largest image recovery project in the history of space exploration.

What on Earth (or in space) is LOIRP?


On July 20, 1969, the first men walked on the Moon…but you already knew that. What you probably haven’t heard is that prior to that momentous day in history, a series of unmanned spacecraft travelled to the moon in the mid-60s to assess the safety of a human moon landing. These spacecraft, known as Lunar Orbiters, captured the highest resolution 70 mm film photographs of the Moon during the Apollo era. These photos were unrivaled until just a few years ago, creating perhaps the most important image collection in our lunar history. The images were scanned onboard the Lunar Orbiter spacecraft, then transmitted back to Earth, transferred to film, re-photographed, and studied to eventually help astronauts like Armstrong and Aldrin make history. However, in the long journey home from the Moon, the process of scanning and copying caused a serious decline in image resolution. Fortunately, at the time, the images were also preserved on magnetic tape, for computer processing to help determine the lunar landing sites. They were then sent to the national archives to be forgotten. These magnetic tapes were the only full-resolution copies in the world.


Fast forward a decade to the office of Nancy Evans, a biologist-turned-NASA archivist who saved this stored and long-forgotten collection of images. Though worthless without the rare (read: outdated) AMPEX FR-900 tape drive to read them, Evans held on to the tape drives, reluctantly leaving them to gather dust on her property in Central California for over 20 years. She had saved the tapes from disposal at the national archives where they were left to age in a NASA warehouse in southern California. During this time, Evans tried and failed to receive funding from NASA or private sources to restore the images due to NASA’s focus on more modern projects, so she turned to the online community of space enthusiasts.

Enter Dennis, Keith, and McDonald’s


By some McMiracle, if you will, Dennis Wingo and Keith Cowing of NASAWatch came across her story and were inspired to found the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project (LOIRP), also known as McMoons. When the tapes finally arrived at Moffett Field in Mountain View, CA, the team fatefully decided to set up shop in an abandoned McDonald’s due to its air conditioning (unusual for temperate California) and ventilation systems.


And so it began with a retired expert engineer on Ampex tape drives, a graduate student, two undergrads, and three pre-teens on summer break. This ragtag team began working away in the abandoned fast food restaurant, repairing archaic tape drives, and restoring scientifically significant images using Photoshop.****

Photoshop and the Future of McMoons


Once the drives were repaired, the team slowly saw some of the most iconic images of space (e.g. Earthrise) appear before their eyes. This is where Photoshop comes in. The team used our editing software to adjust and restore these images to their former glory, not only to document and preserve the history of space exploration, but to ensure safety for future missions to the Moon.


The McMoons team has a multitude of other project accomplishments as well – helping to restore data from NASA’s Nimbus missions in the 1960s, working to recover space hardware, and alerting the world to the importance of data preservation.

Since 2008 and the outset of the project, the original facility, the abandoned McDonald’s, has remained home base; one of the pre-teens who was simply looking to kill time on her summer break, Casey Harper, is now the lead of LOIRP; and this project is expected to be fully completed by December of 2016.

As for the images themselves, they have been sent to the Planetary Data System, the National Archive, and the Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute. Many of the images are even being displayed in an exhibit at the New Museum of Los Gatos, CA if you would care to take a photographic road trip to the far side of the Moon. You can also donate to the project and museum here.

To all of you visionaries at McMoons – young and old, experienced and greenhorn – we on the Photoshop team salute you and thank you for your vision, tenacity and service!

Topics: Photography

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