Most of us don't remember a world before the Apollo-era when NASA was a fully functioning unit that took people to the moon. From 1966 to 1957, NASA launched five space crafts, called Lunar Orbiters 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.
Lunar Orbiter 1 was the first to reach the moon. It took film photos, processed them, scanned them, and beamed the images back to Earth, where technicians recorded them onto analogue data tapes.
Fifty years ago, Lunar Orbiter 1 took the first-ever of Earth rising above the cold, bright dust of the planet's biggest satellite. It wasn't the highest quality photo, but it was a feat for the time. The photo below from NASA:
The problem was that the 1960s technology wasn't able to access the full depth of the data that NASA had on its tapes. After they got what they wanted, they just put the tapes into a Maryland storage unit and pretty much forgot about them.
"They changed hands several times over the years, almost getting tossed out before landing in storage in Moorpark, California," Doug Bierno wrote at Wired.
The tapes were well preserved, but the tape drives, which were the only devices capable of accessing the data, were too large for storage and sat in the barn of Nancy Evans, a former NASA employee. These refrigerator-sized drives aren't produced anymore, naturally.
In 2005, Dennis Wingo found out about the tapes in a web group. He immediately contacted Keith Cowing, a former NASA employee and founder rof NASAWatch.com. They worked to create the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project (LOIRP) so that they could digitize the photos and make them public.
While they received limited funding, they did round up some technical help. they were able to set up a makeshift space in a run-down McDonadl's on the campus of NASA Ames Research Centre - a place they called "McMoons."
McMoons had a Jolly Roger pirate flag on its window and we a few steps away from an old ICBM missile.
Years later, they were able to get the terabytes' worth of extremely high-quality digital imagery.
"The resolution of our images vastly exceeds the original prints," Cowing said.
In 2008, the LOIRP release a high-res version of the photo of Earth from the moon that was taken on August 23, 1966. It had to be made extremely small. It was once roughly 1.2 gigabytes and clocked in bigger than a standard billboard.
Now, the photos are available publicly as part of NASA's Planetary Data System.
Cowing told Business Insider in 2015 that LOIRP donated all of its gear to the Library of Congress. "[T]hat project is more or less at an end," he wrote in an email. "Not much happens [at McMoons] anymore."