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NASA ordered destruction of Apollo-era tapes found in Pittsburgh garage

| Wednesday, July 19, 2017, 1:42 p.m.
Apollo 14 astronaut Alan B. Shepard Jr. conducts an experiment near a lunar crater, using an instrument from a two-wheeled cart carrying various tools.
Apollo 14 astronaut Alan B. Shepard Jr. conducts an experiment near a lunar crater, using an instrument from a two-wheeled cart carrying various tools.

A hoard in a late collector's Pittsburgh garage included a pair of Apollo-era NASA computers and hundreds of data tapes possibly linked to the exploration of our outer solar system, but the space agency determined they were all too difficult to recover and ordered the tapes destroyed, newly released documents show.

The monthslong mystery of the tapes from the height of the space race played out in a series of emails released late last week in response to a Freedom of Information Act Request from Vice News' “Motherboard” website.

In the records , a man who scrapped precious metals contacted NASA in December 2015 after discovering a Pittsburgh basement and garage he was cleaning out contained two refrigerator-sized “minicomputers” that were labeled as having come from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. There also were 325 magnetic data tapes dated between 1967 and 1974, some of which had labels for the Pioneer probe missions that had explored Saturn and Jupiter.

All names, addresses and contact information were redacted from the documents before NASA's Office of the Inspector General released them to Vice News and the public.

The man who reported the discovery said the person who possessed the computers had died in 2011, along with any memories of how the computers and tapes ended up in his possession. The emails later referred to the collector as “a contractor who hoarded stuff for 40 years.”

“Please tell NASA these items were not stolen. They belonged to IBM Alleghany (sic) Center Pittsburgh PA 15212,” the scrapper wrote. “During the 1968-1972 timeframe, IBM was getting rid of the items so (redacted) asked if he could have them and was told he could have them.”

IBM used to have its regional headquarters in what is now known as Four Allegheny Center on the North Side. It was unclear how the computers got from Goddard to Pittsburgh, but Goddard spokesman Ed Campion said NASA disposed of that equipment decades ago, sometimes through auctions.

“Once such a transfer of ownership has occurred, NASA does not track the material,” Campion wrote in a statement. “The minicomputer equipment remained in private hands, in part due to its size and in part because of its poor condition.”

The computers themselves were too large and heavy to remove from the garage in one piece, and no records of their 1962 acquisition contract, their history or their mission could be found that made NASA think it was worth trying to recover them. NASA eventually left it up to the scrapper to dispose of them, but the tapes were moved to Goddard so NASA could determine if they had any historical value or recoverable information.

According to a memo from Goddard's archives department, 215 of the tapes were unlabeled or didn't have any mission-related identification on them. The whole collection suffered from poor condition and mold damage, the archivist wrote.

Ninety-six tapes had labels from the last four Pioneer probe missions, launched between 1967 and 1973. Pioneer 8 and 9 orbited the sun, Pioneer 10 provided the first close-up images of Jupiter and Pioneer 11 explored Jupiter and Saturn. A dozen more tapes appeared to be associated with the Helios-1 mission, a 1974 solar probe built in conjunction with West Germany. Two others were labeled with “Intelsat IV,” a series of communications satellites from the early 1970s.

Vice wrote that when scientists reviewed the Pioneer 10 and 11 missions in the late 1990s to analyze why the probes had unexpectedly veered off their trajectories as they flew out of the solar system, they found nine days worth of data had gone missing when NASA converted its old magnetic tapes from the missions to CDs.

It was unknown whether the Pittsburgh tapes included any of this data, but other theories have, for now, settled the mystery of the “Pioneer anomaly.” One of the people in the Goddard email exchanges suggested it would take “some new physics, scientific mystery or quandary” the data could solve in order to secure funding for recovering the tapes' contents.

“These are in awful condition. Almost every tape has moderate to severe mold. I used gloves and a mask and I wouldn't recommend keeping any of these being as they are a risk to health and there is no safe place to keep them,” the archivist wrote in April 2016.

The data-recovery process for the tapes would be expensive, the tapes could be destroyed in the process and the unlabeled ones could be blank anyway, the archivist wrote.

“Based on the decision reached by the Goddard science experts and myself that there is no evidence that suggests this material is historically significant... coupled with the poor condition and the potential health risk posed by this material, I recommend disposal through the immediate destruction of all magnetic tapes,” said the emails.

Campion said the agency's recycler destroyed the tapes in September 2016.

NASA officials admitted in 2006 the agency had lost tapes containing its original records of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and announced in 2009 that those tapes had been erased to be reused back before storage media was cheap and archiving policies were more robust.

Matthew Santoni is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724 836 6660, or on Twitter @msantoni.

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