Later this month, some of the original videotapes that captured the first Moon landing will be auctioned off to the highest bidder. But they’re not being sold by NASA. Incredibly, these tapes were sold to a random NASA intern back in the 1970s who had no idea at the time that he’d purchased an important piece of history.
Back in June of 1976, NASA sold a bunch of videotapes at a government surplus auction at Ellington Air Force Base in Houston, Texas. Gary George, then a NASA intern at the Johnson Space Center nearby, bought 1,150 reels of magnetic video tapes for just $217.77—over $1,200 adjusted for inflation, but still a damn good deal.
Among the 1,150 reels were 65 boxes of high-quality Ampex video reels, 2-inch tapes that went for roughly $260 each at the time. George figured he could sell them to be recorded over and reused by a local TV station, and he did just that with most of the tapes. But thankfully, he held on to the historic ones.
According to Sotheby’s, it was George’s father who first noticed that these tapes might be worth hanging on to for the future. A small label on one of the boxes read, “APOLLO 11 EVA | July 20, 1969 REEL 1 [–3]” and “VR2000 525 Hi Band 15 ips.” Obviously, that was something that should be taken care of, and that’s precisely what they did.
In 2008, NASA started looking for some of its original recordings for the Moon landing. The space agency had copies, but they didn’t have the original recordings for some of the events, which offered clearer images and better contrast than the dubs. That’s when George dusted off his tapes and came forward.
Curiously, George claims that he couldn’t come to an agreement with NASA about the tapes, whatever that means. We’re going to guess he wanted a lot of money that NASA couldn’t pay, though we don’t know for sure. Gizmodo has reached out to Sotheby’s for clarification.
Here’s Sotheby’s description of what happened:
But although Gary George has kept the three videotapes with him over the course of the past forty-three years, he gave them little thought until early 2008, when a Texas ski club colleague—who also happened to be a NASA video engineer—mentioned to Gary that the space agency was trying, unsuccessfully, to locate its original videotapes of the Apollo 11 EVA in anticipation of the fortieth anniversary of the first manned moon landing. Mr. George was put in contact with NASA about his tapes, but ultimately an agreement could not be reached about what to do with them—or even how to view them.
Left to his own devices, Mr. George was able to contact video archivist David Crosthwait of DC Video in Burbank, California. The DC Video studio had equipment capable of playing the now-vintage videotapes. In October 2008, Gary George’s videotapes were played at DC Video, very possibly for the first time since they had been recorded. Miraculously, the tapes were in faultless condition, displaying a picture quality superior to any other existing contemporaneous videotapes. In December 2008, Mr. George’s tapes were played for the second time since he bought them in 1976, and were digitized directly to 10-bit uncompressed files, retaining their original 525 SD4/3 specifications and downloaded onto a one terabyte hard drive (which is included as a part of the sale of these three reels of videotape). This was the last time these reel-to-reel videotapes were played until Sotheby’s specialists for this auction viewed them in order to confirm their quality.
As for NASA, the agency abandoned its search after concluding that the forty-five reels of SSTV high-resolution recordings of the Apollo 11 EVA had been “degaussed,” or, put more plainly, erased and recorded over. And any duplicate 2-inch Quadruplex videotape recorded by NASA, similar to those purchased by Mr. George, had either met the same fate or—perhaps worse—been irretrievably damaged due to poor storage protocol. NASA marked the ruby anniversary of Apollo 11 in 2009, by contracting with Lowry Digital to restore and enhance the footage of the EVA that had been saved by CBS Television.
Now the original tapes can be yours, provided you have a pile of money sitting around. Sotheby’s estimates that they could sell for roughly $700,000. So go ahead and shake out your couch cushions and sell your yacht or whatever if you want to own a piece of NASA history.
The tapes, along with plenty of other artifacts, go on sale July 20, 2019—the 50th anniversary of humans landing on the Moon.