Need help digitizing NASA tapes

Discussion in 'DIY' started by DSD-13, Dec 23, 2018.

  1. DSD-13

    DSD-13 Active Member

    Dear forum members,

    I am a dutch space memorabilia collecting enthusiast, especially when it comes to digital and analog tapes.

    Last year I have been busy digitizing NASA magnetic tapes. I buy the tapes myself and then look for people who can read them. Most of the tapes are 7 and 9-track computer tapes, digitized by Chuck in America. There are many people who help, and everyone does it on a voluntary basis. Without the help of others we would never have come this far.

    So for a new project, I need YOUR help.

    First an introduction to a number of ongoing projects:

    See here a computer tape used for Apollo 16 in one of our drives:


    A sample of the data:
    R/L 40M17360-11   E/O 8S-0412    REV L    D/I 10/27/71   ECP 10-3216   E                                                          
    Block 12:
    R/L 40M17360-11   E/O 8S-0413    REV M    D/I 10/28/71   ECP 10-3206   E   511 FRT-1                                              
    S     01 03 L DI 0003  SIC SPARE                     M DO 0003 ON  C I                                                            
    Block 20:
    S     01 04 L DI 0004  SIC THRUST CHAMB JKTS LOW     M DO 0004 ON  C I                                                            
    Block 21:
    S     01 05 L DI 0005  SIC HYDRAULIC SYSTEM START    M DO 0005 ON  C I                                                            
    S     26 15 L DO 0615  EDS ENG NO 5 THRUST OK NO 3        NONE     C G                                                            
    Block 5329:
    S     26 16 L DO 0616  EDS S/C CUTOFF ENABLE A            NONE     C G                                                            
    Block 5330:
    S     26 17 L DO 0617  EDS S/C CUTOFF ENABLE B            NONE     C G      
    S     27 19 M DI 2155  SII CMD R S NO 2 ENG CO ON         NONE     R F                                                            
    Block 10515:
    S     27 20 M DI 2156  SII CMD R S NO 1 ENG CO ON         NONE     R F                                                            
    Block 10517:
    S     27 21 M DI 2157  SII LOW LEVEL SENS CONT ON         NONE     R F          
    D           D EE 4301  SII CMD LOX FILL + DRAIN V OP                                                                              
    Block 20990:
    D           D EE 4302  SII CMD LH FILL + DRAIN V OP                                                                                
    Block 20991:
    D           D EE 4303  SII 1250PSI SPIN ST BTL PRES    
        43 09 L DO 1017  SII LOX PRES SUP LINE VENT OP      NONE     C F                                                            
    S     43 20 L DO 1028  SII BF1 ON COMMAND IND             NONE     C F                                                            
    Block 5933:
    S     43 21 L DO 1029  SII RF COUPLER COAX                NONE     C F                                                            
    Block 5935:
    S     43 22 L DO 1030  SII TM CAL PREFLIGHT               NONE     C F                                                            
    Block 5936:
    S     43 23 L DO 1031  SII TM CAL INFLIGHT                NONE     C F      
    Block 5918:
    S     43 10 L DO 1018  SII PD STATUS S+A ARMED            NONE     C F                                                            
    Block 5920:
    S     43 11 L DO 1019  SII EBW 1 ON INTERNAL POWER        NONE     C F                                                            
    Block 5921:
    S     43 12 L DO 1020  SII EBW 2 ON INTERNAL POWER        NONE     C F
    After some research we suspect this tape was used to diagnose the Saturn-V after it was assembled at the VAB. With a computer at Launch Control.

    Another project was with magnetic tapes with Pioneer 11 space probe data. The American has been able to read most of the tapes, and from 1 we have now converted photographic data to PNGs:


    Three B/W photos from the tape:

    1 of the 3 color photos:

    So we have already saved and processed data from two projects. These projects are still running, but are on hold because we are waiting for documents from NASA.

    The current digitized data can be found here:

    Furthermore, I have digitized hours of Apollo broadcasts recorded on 1/4 inch tape recorder tapes. In Dutch, German and English.

    These can be found here:

    For this I have an Akai X-201D and Revox A-77 IV

    I have also digitized NASA S-VHS tapes, and uploaded some tape recordings of the Apollo missions. See links below:

    Nice, but what do you want now?

    Since last week I have bought 4 NASA tapes from Ebay. It is 1/2 inch tape on a 10.5 inch reel and has 7 tracks. The tapes are recorded with Ampex FR-100 and Ampex FR-600 instrumental recorders. On the tapes are analog telemetry signals from satellites, recorded at NASA stations in 1963.


    It seems that there are 6 telemetry tracks, and 1 voice track.

    I do not have have Ampex FR-100 or FR-600, and they are very scarce. Nor do I have a 1/2 inch 8-track recorder.

    What now? There are 8-track 1/2 sound recorders. The height difference between 8 and 7-track is so small, I think you can play a 7-track tape on an 8-track recorder.

    If you adjust the 8-track head up and down, to align it with 1 track at a time I think we can pick up a good signal. I have talked with someone, and he says the tracks are just analog waveforms. I once played a 9-track 1/2 tape on a 1/4 4-track recorder, and I received an unusable but stable signal.

    I and others would really appreciate it if someone makes his (Or hers!) 8-track 1/2 inch recorder available. The tapes will have to be shipped from the Netherlands. For this to work, the head must be adjustable.

    It would be best to use an Ampex FR-100 and FR-600, but I think it's unlikely that we will encounter them.

    If you have any questions, I gladly answer them!
    I can finance material and time where necessary.

    And if you got any NASA related tapes yourself, I will gladly work out a way to have them digitized! so let me know if you got any.

    Happy Holidays,
    Last edited: Dec 23, 2018


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  2. elnaldo

    elnaldo Addicted Member

    Buenos Aires GMT-3
    Very Interesting project. I know a collector down here in Argentina who owns a lot of different machines , even a 16 track tube recorder being 5 or 6 feet tall.

    What machine do you need exactly? A 7 track 1/2"? Never heard of that kind of heads.
  3. gadget73

    gadget73 junk junkie Subscriber

    Southern NJ
    Not sure if these guys may be able to help, but possibly they can direct you to someone that can. I know they have a number of vintage computer tape drives and other equipment

    A group of their volunteers is currently working on reviving an actual Apollo AGC, and they have a number of running 50s and 60s computers.
    ETLS likes this.
  4. DSD-13

    DSD-13 Active Member

    They were used in computer recorders and instrumentation recorders like the Ampex FR-600. An FR-100 and FR-600 would be ideal, but we'd have to find someone who has a working one!

    I think we can still digitize the contents by playing it on a 8-track head and just align it again for each track.
  5. DSD-13

    DSD-13 Active Member

    Thanks for your support!

    The computer tapes have already been baked and most have been digitized. They are at somebody's elses place with custom equipment for this kind of stuff.

    Hopefully the satellite tapes will arrive in the next two weeks, then I will be able to judge their condition, and if they need to be baked or not. But because the SSS might be in the middle or end, and not at the start, its going to be difficult as I can't unspool all of the tape.

    I am talking with somebody in the Netherlands who has several 8-track 1/2 machines, but has not used them for years and doesn't know if they work correctly or not. If none work, one may have to be repaired. I'll then loan the machine for my tapes. I will also work out if I can buy the repaired recorder or not, that would be great for future projects!

    If I setup a crowdfund for the repair would anybody be willing to help fund it?

    Currently I am digitizing two 1/4 inch home recordings of Mercury and Gemini news coverage, including John Glen's flight! will be up soon. My Akai X-201D and Revox A77 MK 4 need repairs too but thats an other matter. The Akai X-201D gets a noisy channel after a while (Especially when you turn it off and on) and the Revox A77 has mechanical and relay problems.

    Will keep you guys updated!

    Have a happy and safe new year. For many discoveries in 2019!
    Hipocrates likes this.
  6. onwardjames

    onwardjames Hoardimus Maximus Subscriber

    Absolutely fascinating stuff here. Hope you are able to get this priceless data into the digital domain.


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  7. DSD-13

    DSD-13 Active Member

    Update #2

    Hello everyone,

    Two of the four satellite tapes have arrived, the other two are coming later.

    I have good and bad news; first we look at the good:

    As you can see in the photos, the reels and tape are in good condition. All reels were carefully packed with original documentation in an aluminum holder. This holder was in two layers of cardboard. The cardboard seems to have a bit of water damage, but the tape has remained protected in the holder, which also has no rust. The reel has no scratches and dents.

    The tape does not smell and looks good. I do not notice any mold or rotting. Optically, the tape is clean with little scratching on the playback side.

    I have unspooled part of the tape and I do not notice any Sticky Shed Syndrome, although of course I could only check the beginning.

    Now then, I dared to attempt to play the tape on my Akai X201D 1/4 4-track tape recorder. I did this by unwinding a piece of the tape and guiding the tape through the tape path guides and capstan. The tape gets pulled through the capstan in another box. With clean gloves, I make sure that the tape runs over the heads at the right pressure.

    This was a success in itself because I received a number of signals. By carefully moving the tape up and down, I can try to focus on 1 track. Further than this I did not come.

    I am talking to p.lankhaar about borrowing an 8-track tape recorder. He is testing his recorders to see if they are still working properly. Hopefully we can play the tapes better with one of those.

    The bottom sound file are the interesting pieces from a few minutes of play on 7-1/2 I.P.S

    The tapenumber on the boxes and documentation is 3141/2N003
    The number on the reel itself is 10786-16-8
    Satellite: 1963-014A & B (ERS5)
    Recorder: FR-100
    Speed: 15 I.P.S
    Station Name: GFORKS

    With this we have proven that something is on the tape, and it can be picked up with a sound head.

    And now the bad news: Tape 10678-159-29 / 330p001 I also tried to play, and I get no signal, just as if there was no tape at all. Maybe this tape has been erased, or recorded with another recorder that does not play on my Akai. Anyway, I do not have a sample of it at this moment.

    There are two other tapes on their way, I will give an update as soon as I have tried to play those.

    Last edited: Jan 12, 2019
    redk9258 likes this.
  8. DSD-13

    DSD-13 Active Member

    Update #3
    The other two tapes have arrived. One with audio like the last one, second one without audio. Again I suspect i'm just not able to unspool it far enough. Luckly again no evidence of SSS and tapes are in excellent condition. A fifth tape is on the way and I am looking into buying a sixth one that might have audio from the Vanguard satellite.

    I've been talking with a dutch reel to reel recorder enthusiast, and he has several 8-track 1/2 inch recorders. He has Teac 80-8, Tascam 38 and Otari units. Unfortunately, he is very busy with work and doesn't have much free time.

    His Otari MX-5050 8 unit is most interesting to me since it can play two speeds, 7/1-2 and 15 I.P.S which is what I need.

    After taking a look, all mechanical functions appear to be working. Playback, fastforward/rewind. When he sends a sound from the build-in tone generator to the recording input, all VU meters register correctly and there is sound.

    But...there is no sound on playback! its possible there is nothing on the tape, he will try and find an other one to test once he has the time.

    Neither of us have the parts, equipment and time to repair and calibrate such a machine. So its likely we have to hand it over to a company for repairs and calibration.

    All the best.
    Last edited: Jan 12, 2019
    Mike Sweeney likes this.
  9. elnaldo

    elnaldo Addicted Member

    Buenos Aires GMT-3
    You can test if the playback function works (and the owner of the recorder probably knows this), approximating and moving a small piece of metal near the heads, with fast movements. If the playback head and amplifiers are working, you'll have sound at the output.

    Just use a non magnetic metal, I usually use some small tweezers. A small screwdriver also works. Just be careful about magnetism, and magnetic tools.
  10. 4-2-7

    4-2-7 Smart Ass Sponsor Subscriber

    San Francisco Peninsula
    To bad you weren't closer, I have a Tascam TSR-8 and a Marantz PMD580 digital recorder. It would be easy to record one to the other.
  11. KentTeffeteller

    KentTeffeteller Gimpus Stereophilus!

    Athens, TN
    Data and instrumentation tapes won't play on the Akai machine. You will need an instrumentation machine for these, similar to the ones which recorded them. Or a data machine if 9 track data format. The Akais are 1/4 track audio only.


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  12. embrown057

    embrown057 Active Member

    Apollo Beach,FL
    My son found a very old FM/FM data tape in Oklahoma. It's from a retired NASA employee that passed away last year. It's 1/4 tape and sound like all it was recorded yesterday. It's on Type EP Audio Tape so it has to be old, like 1950's or early 60's. There are some dates on the container 1958/1963, have no use for the tape if it's something you can use let me know. I just wanted the metal reel but can't bring myself to junk the tape. I have no way to convert the data from the tape.

    Attached Files:

  13. DSD-13

    DSD-13 Active Member

    Interesting, what does it sound like? a stable tone, fluctuations, sawtooth wave?

    Is it possible you can supply a sharper picture, or write down the information on the labels of the canister and reel itself? That would tell me more.

    Thanks for bringing this up to me!
  14. embrown057

    embrown057 Active Member

    Apollo Beach,FL
    The tape has multiple signals on top of a steady low frequency then go's to white noise at the end of side two. The tape is fully recorded on both sides.
    JIC 3.0 13 Aug 1958
    -1 min. to Impact
    Code 66/641/01
    13 Aug 1958
  15. mr_light

    mr_light AK Subscriber Subscriber

    Silver Spring, MD
    Seems like computer tapes of that era come in UNIVAC, IBM, or DEC format. Do we know the data format for these tapes? The Magnetic Tape Wikipedia is a good resource.
    I still remember our IBM datacenter donating our old IBM open reel tape drives and control units to the National Archives at College Park, Maryland.
  16. DSD-13

    DSD-13 Active Member

    Hmm, interesting. Unfortunately it does not ring any bells.
    The '-1 min to impact' part is interesting indeed. But I don't know of any impactors in 1958.
    Are there multiple dates on the tape? I see you said 1963, if that is the latest date it should be used.

    I am interested in the tape. Are you able to record a sample and post it?
    Last edited: Jan 16, 2019 at 2:40 PM


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  17. embrown057

    embrown057 Active Member

    Apollo Beach,FL
    Seems the military did several Nuclear test in 1958 like "nutmeg" . Is it possible it might be from that ?

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