Home Government NASA Moon landing tapes worth $2 million up for auction

NASA Moon landing tapes worth $2 million up for auction

Buzz Aldrin sets up experiments on the Moon. | Image: NASA

Sotheby’s is hosting a live auction for space exploration items on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, and included in the bidding lot are three Moon landing tapes with originally recorded footage of the astronauts’ activities during their July 20, 1969 moonwalk. The auction house has set the initial bid at $700,000 and expects the winning bid to be between $1 and $2 million dollars.

The event was broadcast from the Moon to a receiver in Australia where it was then transmitted to NASA Mission Control in Houston, converted into NHTS broadcast format, and recorded onto film. The 2-inch Quadruplex videotape reels being offered in the auction are the resulting tapes from that process. NASA also recorded the transmission directly via its own receiving equipment, but the 45 Moon landing tapes containing the activities during the historic event have since been lost, deemed to likely have been erased or recorded over.

The original Apollo 11 tapes up for auction at Sotheby’s. | Image: Sotheby’s

Sotheby’s claims the video quality of the tapes being auctioned is superior to the recordings held by news agencies due to quality losses each time the signals were rebroadcast, hence the premium price tag. The Moon landing tapes are said to have only been viewed three times, once by the owner to view the contents, once again to digitize onto a one terabyte hard drive (also included in the auction), and once to be verified by the auction house. No alterations or enhancements have been made to the tapes, meaning they ultimately represent the closest thing available to the originals.

The story behind the tapes, along with extensive technical details about them, is available on Sotheby’s auction page.


The full story behind these moon landing tapes is pretty amazing. The owner purchased them as a student for around $200 in a government surplus auction in the 70s and didn’t even know what they contained until 2008. He actually called NASA about them when he heard they were looking for their original Apollo 11 tapes for the 40th anniversary of the first Moon walk, thinking they might want to have a look in case it was what they wanted.

Not surprisingly, NASA didn’t know how to view the tapes and by doing nothing essentially lost them…AGAIN. The owner finally found a place with the right viewing equipment, had them digitized, and will now be some million dollars richer thanks to a combination of his due diligence and the space agency’s incompetence. Obviously, not everyone at NASA is to blame for this issue, but it’s a classic story of bureaucracy.

There are some conspiracies about aliens being sighted on the Moon during the Apollo era, so when I saw the world “original” in the headlines about the films, I had fun musing that maybe NASA is freaking out knowing that the original-originals didn’t take the truth with them when they were “lost”. The transmissions that went out to the public had been converted into broadcast format first, meaning everything sent out to TV stations could have been censored. These three tapes at Sotheby’s may or may not be “censored” since they were converted before being recorded.

The Apollo 11 astronauts. Did they know something we don’t? | Image: NASA

The conspiracy mostly hinges on some astronaut testimony over the years plus what’s known as the “Pepper Transcripts”, a transcription of dialogue that supposedly happened between astronauts on the Moon and NASA during the 2-minute blackout right after Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong landed.

As the story goes, someone known as Sam Pepper “leaked” the transcript after obtaining it from top secret sources in 1969, whereafter it was published by a Canadian publication called National Bulletin.

It read as follows:

  • Apollo 11: “Those are giant things. No, no, no, this is not an optical illusion. No one is going to believe this.”
  • NASA: “What… what…. what? What the hell is happening?” “What’s wrong with you?”
  • Apollo 11: “They’re here, under the surface.”
  • NASA: “What’s there? (muffled noise) Emission interrupted; interference control calling Apollo 11.”
  • Apollo 11: “We saw some visitors. They were here for a while, observing the instruments.”
  • NASA: “Repeat your last information.”
  • Apollo 11: “I say that there were other spaceships. They’re lined up in the other side of the crater.”
  • Apollo 11: “Let us sound this orbita… in 625 to 5… automatic relay connected… my hands are shaking so badly I can’t do anything. Film it? God if these damned cameras have picked up anything – what then?”
  • NASA: “Have you picked up anything?”
  • Apollo 11: “I didn’t have any film at hand. Three shots of the saucers, or whatever they were that were ruining the film.”
  • NASA: “Control, control here. Are you on your way? What is the uproar with the UFOs over?
  • Apollo 11: “They’ve landed there. There they are and they’re watching us.
  • NASA: “The mirrors, the mirrors – have you set them up?”
  • Apollo 11: “Yes, they’re in the right place. But whoever made those spaceships surely can come tomorrow and remove them. Over and out.”

There’s another version of this transcript where NASA calls itself “Mission Control” and the language is a little more garbled. I’m not terribly familiar with the whole thing, and maybe I’ll look more into it eventually just for fun. However, I will note that on the surface, there are some things that are interesting and I think minimize what debunkers have said about the transcript (aside from even being able to figure out where it came from to begin with).

First, the use of “Control” or “Mission Control” instead of “Houston” is an aberration from business-as-usual during Apollo 11, as debunkers note, but I think the transcript indicates a changeover happened (muffled noise) and using the name “Mission Control” signaled to the astronauts that they were talking to someone besides the ground control at Houston. It makes sense to me that some government person would be standing by to take over if weird things started happening.

Buzz Aldrin setting up experiments on the Moon during the Apollo 11 mission. | Image: NASA

Assuming communications were switched over to this “Mission Control” party, that could also explain the two minute blackout. The channel being communicated on may have changed over to another channel where the transcripted conversation took place, explaining why none of the media in Houston noticed, and also explaining why HAM radio operators listening in testified that they’d only heard what the TVs had broadcast. That really was what they heard since no one was tuned to the other channel’s conversation.

As I understand it, multiple channels were used by NASA, some specifically to communicate non-public information such as astronaut medical concerns – in the movie Apollo 13, there’s a scene where this happens. The radio issue is actually one place where I’d like to dig down and learn more about what NASA used and who could obtain access to broadcasts and so forth. It would also be relevant background to better understand what SETI is doing as well, but I digress.

The broadcast frequency part of the Moon landing is also interesting and slightly corroborating of the transcript. The standard video camera of the day transmitted 525 scan lines of data at 30 frames per second at 5 MHz. The reference to “625 to 5” and “relay” together could be related, maybe representing a short hand way of confirming a frequency change, kind of like how the military communicates a radio channel change while in the field. Or not. I’m just speculating after some casual reading and pondering.

In the other transcript that’s included on a debunker site, there’s a bit where one of the astronauts refers to “all 3 of us” that’s pointed to as a clear indicator that the whole thing is faked. I obviously don’t know what’s real or not, but this is one of those places where debunkers are haughty and silly. Clearly, the astronauts would have been referring to all 3 men on the mission (Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins) who were collectively communicating with NASA. Here’s that bit in the other version:

NASA: What’s there…malfunction…Mission Control calling Apollo 11…
Apollo 11: Roger, we’re here, all three of us, but we’ve found some visitors…

Apollo 11 was the whole mission, while Eagle was just Aldrin and Armstrong. This is just splitting hairs, really.

Back to the Sotheby’s moon landing tapes, let’s say NASA was recording the whole time, and only the transmissions to the news stations were blocked. If they switched over communications channels, the film would be missing audio in that portion but still have footage of what the astronauts were looking at. The owner digitized the film, but it doesn’t look like it’s been released to anyone after that, meaning only a millionaire will get to see it aside from the owner, the person that had the tape playing equipment, the person who digitized the film, and the person at Sotheby’s. Would they keep quiet if something was off? Would everyone at Mission Control keep quiet if they saw something strange on the live footage? Would anyone even notice if something was picked up that would corroborate the “leaked” transcript?

It’s all probably nothing, but I love thinking about the possibilities regardless.