“The Missing Moon Files”
by Julia Rosen
Discover, November 2016
[opening small talk redacted]
I’m writing because I have a story in mind that I think would be a good fit for Discover. I was wondering if you’d be willing to take a look at it, or pass it along to the appropriate person if this isn’t your department. Thanks and let me know what you think!
During the Apollo missions, astronauts did more than plant flags on the moon and collect samples of dust and rocks. They also placed more than a dozen scientific instruments on the lunar surface. These included seismometers to measure moon-quakes and detectors to monitor the strength of the solar wind, among others. For years after the astronauts returned home, the machines hummed along, beaming data back to Earth, until Congress abruptly pulled the plug on the project’s funding in 1977.
Nowadays, you could probably fit all the data NASA collected from the moon on a single thumb drive, but at the time, they were recorded onto magnetic tape — the kind used in old computers. In total, these data filled more than 11,000 7- and 9-track reels, some of which were sent to the scientists working on the projects, and some of which went to the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, for safekeeping. Or at least, according to official records. But several years ago, when Seiichi Nagihara, a geophysicist at Texas Tech University, went looking for the tapes at the National Archives, he found no trace of them, or any clues to where they went.
Since then, Nagihara has been on a quest to find the data collected by the Apollo Lander Surface Experiments Packages, or ALSEP. He’s part of a group of scientists-turned-detectives working to recover the lost data. Without a paper trail to guide them, the team has resorted to desperate measures, like rifling through the office cabinets and basement storerooms of the scientists who headed the original experiments. They say it’s a race against time, since most of these researchers have already retired or, in some cases, died. “We don’t want to leave any stone unturned, but we are running out of stones to turn,” Nagihara says.
The motivation behind their mission goes beyond a desire to preserve space history. The scientists say that NASA has no plans to go back to the moon any time soon and these data — most of which were never analyzed — offer a unique glimpse into the workings of our lonely satellite. For instance, Renee Weber, a planetary scientist at the Marshall Space Flight Center, recently reanalyzed seismic data from the Apollo missions using modern computing techniques to gain a clearer picture of the moon’s core. Understanding the moon will also help scientists learn more about our own planet. The moon-forming impact of a Mars-sized object, for example, remains one of the most important — and mysterious — events in Earth’s evolution.
So far, however, the team has found only 450 tapes and 700 documents relating to the experiments. The rest remain at large, evading the tireless efforts of Nagihara and his colleagues, which I propose to chronicle in a feature for Discover. I will explore the origin of the ALSEP project, how the tapes were lost, and what scientists think they could learn from them if found. I have already spoken to Nagihara, who is personable and animated, and would make an excellent central character. I will also interview Renee Weber; David Williams, a NASA scientist who is working to convert the existing ALSEP data into usable formats; Lynn Lewis, the co-chair of the ALSEP Data Recovery Group; and Stephen Dick, NASA’s chief historian.
My work has previously appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Science Magazine, and Nautilus, among other places. Please find samples of here and here, and more on my website. Thank you very much and I look forward to hearing from you.