In 1890, William Dickson unveiled the Kinetograph, making the first moving pictures possible. Within two years, he debuted the Kinetoscope, which projected these primitive films onto the big screen. And in 1894, Dickson’s partner Thomas Edison opened Earth’s first Kinetograph Parlors for public screenings. Dickson, Edison, and their early audiences could never have anticipated how integral moving picture technology would become in the 20th century.
What’s more, their invention paved the way, seven decades later, for the film documentation of humanity’s first steps on the lunar surface after Apollo 11’s successful landing. Yet, the original footage of the momentous occasion was nearly lost for good.
Keep reading for the full scoop on the vanishing Apollo 11 moonwalk films and where they can be found today. Hint: It’s a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium!
The Case of the Missing Film Reels
In preparation for the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moonwalk, NASA searched for the original tapes containing footage of the first lunar landing but to no avail. Officials had long thought the footage remained preserved at the Goddard Space Flight Center in one of the 2,614 boxes labeled as Apollo mission tapes. Since 1969, these boxes had sat at the storage facility, collecting dust.
But by 2006, the space agency announced the 14-track data tapes of the moonwalk could not be located. NASA stated, “An intensive search of archives and records concluded that the most likely scenario was that the program managers determined there was no longer a need to keep the tapes — since all the video was recorded elsewhere — and they were erased and reused.”
This explanation did little to assuage public concern. The realization the reels were missing stunned the nation. Gone was the original tape of Neil Armstrong’s famous declaration, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” along with priceless material from the successful space mission.
A Former Intern Saves the Day
What NASA didn’t know, however, is that a copy of the Apollo 11 mission videos had escaped erasure despite the odds. In 1976, a young intern at NASA named Gary George attended a government auction where he paid $217.77 for three truckloads of movie reels. He bought 1,150 tapes, which he hoped to sell independently to drum up money for college.
When some of the tapes didn’t sell, he decided to donate them to a church in Texas. The church produced a regular, syndicated television program, and George figured he could write off the donated tapes on his taxes. He enlisted his dad’s help to unload the boxes of videos at the church. In the process, they came across a few reels labeled: “Space Secret.”
George decided to hang onto the reels for safekeeping along with a few additional ones that he deemed potentially valuable, including a Bob Hope benefit special to raise money for the families of the Apollo 1 astronauts. The three astronauts had perished in a cabin fire during a rehearsal launch test at Cape Kennedy Air Force Station on January 27, 1967.
One-of-a-Kind Film Footage
In 2006, George listened in shock as NASA announced the tragic news about the Apollo 11 moonwalk lost media. He remembered the reels labeled “Space Secret” that he had shelved decades prior and realized it was time to dust them off. He reached out to David Crosthwait, whose California studio boasted equipment capable of playing the vintage reels.
In December 2008, George and David played the two-inch videotapes for the second time since the auction. The tapes included many incredible moments from the moon landing. How had the footage gotten back to Earth in the first place? Through a non-broadcast, slow-scan signal to Sydney, Australia, which live-played on a slow-scan monitor. From there, broadcast quality cameras recorded the monitor, distributing this screen capture worldwide.
The two hours and 24 minutes of “unrestored, unenhanced, and unremastered” footage includes many iconic moments: Neil Armstrong’s lunar declaration, a solar wind experiment, and a lunar gravity demonstration by Buzz Aldrin. They also record the moment Armstrong and Aldrin planted the U.S. flag on the moon as well as a long-distance phone call with President Richard Nixon.
Many things distinguish these tapes from network television broadcast copies. Not only are they among the only surviving first-generation recordings of the Apollo 11 expedition, but their image quality is sharper and more distinct.
An Out-of-This-World Acquisition
In 2019, the tapes sold at auction for $1.82 million to Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, giving this near-tragic tale of lost media a happily ever after. Visitors to Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Orlando can now see these historic tapes, among many other unique space exhibits, in the attraction’s new Out of This World gallery.
For an out-of-this-world experience, guests can touch a 3,197-pound meteorite or a piece of Mars, and even get hands on with a pair of gloves to work in a vacuum, as astronauts would in space. The pièce de résistance — aside from Luke Skywalker’s original Star Wars lightsaber — a 16-foot-tall interactive video wall that will also stream live launches!
Learn more about the Apollo 11 moon landing and these amazing, historical tapes at Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Orlando.
By Engrid Barnett, contributor for Ripleys.com