Apollo 11 Tapes Bought by NASA Intern for $218 Could Get Millions in The Auction

Apollo 11

Video recordings of the Apollo 11 moon landing bought by a NASA intern for $217.77 from a government excess auction 43 years ago are expected to fetch up to $2 million when they go up for auction next month.

The three reels of 2-inch Quadruplex videotape contain the “earliest, sharpest, and most accurate surviving video images” of man’s first steps on the moon, according to Sotheby’s, which is holding a special auction dedicated to space exploration on July 20, the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission.

The unrestored, unenhanced, and unremastered tapes, which have a combined runtime of 2 hours and 24 minutes, capture Neil Armstrong’s famous words “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” footage of Buzz Aldrin walking in minimal lunar gravity, the planting of the American flag, and even the crew’s call with Richard Nixon.

The videotapes will be offered from the collection of Gary George, who came across the recordings by a stroke of remarkable luck. While working as an intern for NASA Johnson Space Center in 1973, George came across a single lot of 1,150 reels of magnetic tape while browsing a government surplus auction.

Among the reels were 65 boxes of 2-inch, reel-to-reel videotapes of the type used by TV stations. For $217.77, George bought the tapes. At the time, a new reel of Ampex tape cost about $260 so George thought it was a good deal — he could sell them to a local TV station for a profit since they could be recorded over.

Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin standing by the US flag planted on the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969. (Photo Credit: NASA / Getty Images)

George’s father, however, noticed that three of the boxes were labeled as “APOLLO 11 EVA | July 20, 1969 REEL 1 [–3]” and “VR2000 525 Hi Band 15 ips,” so he decided to hang onto them.

In 2006, NASA admitted that they could not find the original video recordings of the landing, but it wasn’t until  two years later, when George was on holiday with a friend who worked at NASA, that he found out the agency was looking for them in anticipation of the 40th anniversary of the first manned moon landing.

“Quite frankly, I was sitting at the table drinking a beer and I said, ‘Well, damn, I have those,’” George told Reuters.

George did not have the equipment to watch the tapes, but after he started speaking to NASA about handing them over he was able to see the footage for the first time in a special studio in California. The tapes were in the “faultless” condition.

In December 2008, the tapes were played for a second time since George bought them in 1976 and were digitized directly to 10-bit uncompressed files, retaining their original 525 SD4/3 specifications and downloaded onto a one terabyte hard drive (which is included as a part of the sale).

The third and last time the videotapes were played was when Sotheby’s specialists viewed them to confirm the quality for auction. The next viewer — who will see images clearer and with better contrast than those that the more than half-billion-person television audience witnessed that historic July day 50 years ago on their home sets — will be the auction winner.

Before heading to auction on July 20, the tapes will be exhibited at Sotheby’s in New York starting on July 13.

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