By James Rogers
Published July 20, 2019
The unrestored, unenhanced and unremastered tapes are described as “the earliest, sharpest, and most accurate surviving video images of man’s first steps on the moon,” by auction house Sotheby’s.
The tapes, which have a run time of 2 hours and 24 minutes, had a pre-sale estimate of $1 million to $2 million. The artifacts were auctioned in New York on Saturday, the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing.
Viewed only three times since they were bought directly from NASA at the auction in 1976, the tapes are the only surviving first-generation recordings of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the Moon, according to the auction house.
The videotapes are from the collection of Gary George, who purchased them while serving an intern at NASA. In June 1976, George attended an auction at Houston’s Ellington Air Force Base where he bought a single lot of some 1,150 reels of magnetic tape whose “Owning Agency Or Reporting Office,” was listed as NASA.
“Among the reels were about sixty-five boxes of 2-inch, reel-to-reel videotapes of the type used by television stations,” explains Sotheby’s in a statement, noting that George planned to sell the used tapes, which could be re-recorded, to local TV stations.
However, after selling some of the tapes and donating others to Lamar University and a local church, George’s father noticed that three of the boxes were labeled: “APOLLO 11 EVA | July 20, 1969 REEL 1 [–3]” and “VR2000 525 Hi Band 15 ips.”
EVA refers to Extra Vehicular Activity, the famous period of time that Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spent on the lunar surface outside the Eagle lander. The EVA lasted just 2 hours, 31 minutes and 40 seconds.
“Thinking that these particular tapes may be worth hanging on to, George saved the three boxes, giving them little thought until early 2008 when he learned that NASA was attempting to locate its original slow scan videotapes of the Apollo 11 EVA (Extravehicular Activity) in anticipation of the 40th anniversary of the first manned moon landing,” explains Sotheby’s.
George sought out a studio with equipment capable of playing the tapes and in October 2008 they were played by DC Video, potentially for the first time since they had been recorded. Found to be in “faultless condition” they tapes were played again the following month and digitized. “This was the last time these reel-to-reel videotapes were played until Sotheby’s specialists viewed them in order to confirm their quality for this auction,” explains the auction house.
The historic mission continues to be a source of fascination. A rare signed photo of Apollo 11 astronaut Armstrong making his ‘giant leap for mankind’ was recently sold in a separate auction for $52,247.
Last year, a checklist that traveled to the surface of the Moon with Armstrong and Aldrin sold at auction in New York for $62,500.
In 2017, a bag containing Moondust filled by Armstrong was sold by Sotheby’s for $1.8 million.
Follow James Rogers on Twitter @jamesjrogers
Apollo 11: NASA and the 'lost' Moon landing tapes