Washington Red-faced because the best pictures of its glory days are missing, NASA said Tuesday it was launching an official search for more than 13,000 original tapes of the historic Apollo moon missions.
What's missing are the never-before-broadcast clear original videos - not the grainy converted pictures the world watched on television more than three decades ago.
The tapes aren't lost, insists the NASA official put in charge of the search. But he doesn't know where they are.
Most likely they are somewhere at the sprawling Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., which misplaced the tapes originally. But they also could be stored somewhere else.
The original video, taken directly from the moon and beamed to deep space network observatories in Australia, has never been seen by the general public or even NASA officials.
The entire world watched fuzzy, ghostlike images of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon. But only a handful of technicians saw the good stuff live, sharp enough to see Armstrong's reflection in Aldrin's faceplate, said Stan Lebar, the retired Apollo television camera manager.
"The quality ... is two, three or four times better than we ever saw," said Richard Nafzger, a senior engineer at Goddard who on Tuesday was put in charge of the search effort.
The original tapes played 10 frames per second in Australia, Nafzger said. But television needed 60 frames per second so each picture was repeated six times and "you'd see ghosting," he said.
Until Tuesday, the search for the tapes was a spare-time deal and retirement hobby for Nafzger and the 81-year-old Lebar - not anything organized. Now with news reports of the lost tapes and NASA wanting data for its new lunar missions, the agency ordered a search of its cosmic attics.
Nafzger hopes the hunt can be wrapped up in under six months with five workers and a bit of travel. Stored in more than 2,000 boxes, each tape lasts only 15 minutes. Everything from all 11 missions - from launch to splashdown - is on the videos, Lebar said.