Ancient IBM drive rescues Apollo moon data

Sydney computer society offers ancient tape drive to play hidden moon files.

Valuable mission data gathered by NASA's Apollo missions to the moon forty years ago looks like it may be recovered thanks to a donation of an ancient IBM tape drive by a Sydney computer society.

The Apollo 11, 12 and 14 missions to the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s, gathered valuable data on moon dust for NASA, using 'dust detectors' that were invented by a Perth physicist Brian O'Brien, according to ABC News in Australia.

This information on moon dust was apparently beamed back to earth and recorded onto 173 data tapes, stored at both NASA and Sydney University.

Dr O'Brien published preliminary findings on the data, but after a lack of interest from the scientific community, the tapes on moon dust were placed into storage in the 1970s.

But it now seems that moon dust is a very important environmental problem indeed for NASA, especially as the US Space Agency considers building a base on the moon.

Moon dust, as NASA quickly discovered, is extremely abrasive, and according to astronauts whose space suits and equipment quickly became covered in it, it smelt like 'spent gunpowder'. NASA said that the dust would often scratch lenses or corrode seals.

Unfortunately according to O'Brien, NASA 'misplaced' its moon dust tapes before they could be archived.

Thankfully the tapes stored at Sydney University were still available, however what was not readily available was a IBM 729 Mark V tape drive needed to read the data.

The IBM 729 magnetic tape drive was used by IBM from the late 1950s through the mid 1960s. It used a 1/2 inch magnetic tape that was up to 2,400 feet in length, on a reel measuring up to 10-1/2 inch in diameter.

When Dr O'Brien learnt of the tape loss, he was contacted by an Australian data recovery firm, SpectrumData, which offered to try and get hold of the information.

SpectrumData subsequently moved the tapes into a climate controlled room, and even managed to locate a very rare 1960s IBM729 Mark 5 tape drive at the Australian Computer Museum Society, which has agreed to loan the company the drive so that the data can be recovered.

Unfortunately, it seems that the tape drive, which is the size of a household fridge, is in need of some attention in order to get it working again.

"The drives are extremely rare, we don't know of any others that are still operating," Guy Holmes of SpectrumData is reported as saying by ABC News.

"It's going to have to be a custom job to get it working again. It's certainly not simple, there's a lot of circuitry in there, it's old, it's not as clean as it should be and there's a lot of work to do."

Holmes hopes to get the tape drive working by January, and believes it will then only take a week or so to pull the data off the old tapes drives.

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Tom Jowitt

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