Former NASA Intern Scores $1.82 Million for Moon Landing Tapes He Bought at Auction

Buzz Aldrin posing with the U.S. flag on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969, as part of the Apollo 11 mission.
Photo: NASA/Neil A. Armstrong (AP)

Former NASA intern Gary George sold off three of the agency’s videotapes of the Apollo 11 moon landing for $1.82 million at auction house Sotheby’s on Saturday, the 50th anniversary of the event, CNN reported.

Sotheby’s claims the videos have not been enhanced, restored, or otherwise altered and are the “earliest, sharpest, and most accurate surviving video images of man’s first steps on the moon,” CNN wrote. George paid $217.77 in 1976 (approximately $980 in today’s dollars) for 1,150 reels of NASA magnetic tape at a government auction while he was a Lamar University student interning at Johnson Space Center in Houston. According to CNN, George did not in fact realize that the lot included valuable footage of the moon landing at first, and only realized said footage could be valuable in 2008:

George sold and donated some of the tapes, but he saved three of them after his father noticed they were labeled “APOLLO 11 EVA | July 20, 1969 REEL 1 [—3]” and “VR2000 525 Hi Band 15 ips.” He didn’t give them much thought until he found out in 2008 that NASA was trying to locate its original tapes for the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, Sotheby’s said.

The tapes have a combined run time of 2 hours and 24 minutes, and they show the entirety of the moon walk as seen by the Mission Control staff, from the first walk to the phone call with then-President Richard Nixon, the auction house said.

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“Since the camera had to be deployed before [Neil] Armstrong and [Buzz] Aldrin exited the Lunar Module if it was truly going to capture their first steps on the surface of the moon, the camera was stowed in a shock-proof and insulated mount on the LM’s Modularized Equipment Stowage Assembly,” Sotheby’s said in a statement to CNBC. “Armstrong released the MESA when he first peered out of the LM, so that the camera would be in position to capture his slow descent down the ladder and onto the lunar surface. The two astronauts later removed the camera from the LM and mounted it on a tripod to capture a wider view of the LM and their activities and experiments.”

The identity of the buyer was not disclosed.

NASA infamously “lost” 14-track data tapes (in reality, they were likely recorded over) containing the slow-scan television (SSTV) footage received directly from the 1969 moon landing, but says no data was actually destroyed as they were able to recover both higher-quality footage converted to NTSC format for broadcast and a Super 8 reel from Australia of some of the SSTV footage pre-conversion.

The agency wrote that George’s tapes are “2-inch videotapes recorded in Houston from the video that had been converted to a format that could be broadcast over commercial television” which “contain no material that hasn’t been preserved at NASA.” However, Sotheby’s claimed the footage in the tapes is “sharper and more distinct” than other versions because it was never degraded by transmission between microwave towers.

The original SSTV footage is likely to never be found, according to the New York Times, with NASA determining in the 2000s that they likely fell prey to tape shortages in the 1980s. NASA’s own tapes of the broadcast suffered irreparable damage due to high humidity amid an energy shortage during the Carter administration, when federal facilities were forced to turn off air conditioning, the Times added.

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Tom McKay

"... An upperclassman who had been researching terrorist groups online." - Washington Post