Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A Serious Lesson for Genealogists from the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project

Back in 1966 and 1967, five Lunar Orbiter spacecraft were sent to the moon to survey potential landing sites for the manned Apollo missions. The data transmitted by the Lunar Orbiter spacecraft was almost lost through technical obsolescence. Twenty years after the initial project, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) had to make the decision to keep or scrap the tapes made from the transmissions of the Lunar Orbiter. The equipment and the tapes were saved but the AMPEX tape machines were left sitting in the garage of one of the JPL Archivists for another almost twenty years. Finally, in 2004, a project was started to recover the data from the tapes.

The recovery project took until 2010. The story of the recovery is discussed in the above video interview and in a fascinating Wikipedia article on the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project. There is also a website dedicated to the ongoing project, see

As usual, there is an important genealogical lesson to be learned from this story of what is now being called "technoarchaeology." For me, it is somewhat unsettling to realize that events that took place while I was a married graduate student are now considered the basis of archaeology, technical or otherwise. The major challenge of the data recovery effort was reconstructing the machinery necessary to read the tapes made from the transmissions from space. But having battled my own technological obsolescence issues on several occasions, I can certainly relate to the experiences of these engineers in trying to recapture valuable data.

As this example extensively illustrates, it is not enough simply to preserve a digital copy of your data, it is also important to migrate the date as new technology replaces the old. It is entirely possible that your hardware, i.e. computer, drives, storage devices etc., are woefully out of date. Are you sure, if something happened to your computer and hard drive that your data would be capable of being read by a newer, currently available, computer? Not only is there an issue with using old software, but the electronic devices themselves may also be impossible to reproduce.

Technology runs in cycles lasting about three to five years. If your computer and associated equipment and the programs that it uses are older than this, you are well into the danger zone. If you have gone past eight to ten years, then you are facing a major data loss issue. It should have been a wake-up call when Microsoft announced that is would no longer be supporting Windows XP.

Take a lesson from this dramatic story of technoarchaeology and start data migration today.

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