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NASA IBM Hardware

Scrap Dealer Finds Apollo-Era NASA Computers In Dead Engineer's Basement (arstechnica.com) 104

Long-time Slashdot reader Joe_NoOne quotes Ars Technica: A pair of Apollo-era NASA computers and hundreds of mysterious tape reels have been discovered in a deceased engineer's basement in Pittsburgh... Most of the tapes are unmarked, but the majority of the rest appear to be instrumentation reels for Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11, NASA's fly-by missions to Jupiter and Saturn... At some point in the early 1970s, an IBM engineer working for NASA at the height of the Space Race took home the computers -- and the mysterious tape reels. A scrap dealer, invited to clean out the deceased's electronics-filled basement, discovered the computers. The devices were clearly labelled "NASA PROPERTY," so the dealer called NASA to report the find. "Please tell NASA these items were not stolen," the engineer's heir told the scrap dealer, according to the report. "They belonged to IBM Allegheny Center Pittsburgh, PA 15212. During the 1968-1972 timeframe, IBM was getting rid of the items so [redacted engineer] asked if he could have them and was told he could have them."
"NASA told the family of the deceased that it was not in the junk removal business," Ars Technica reports, adding "The two computers are so heavy that a crane was likely used to move the machines." A NASA archivist concluded there's no evidence the tapes contained anything of historic significance.

Scrap Dealer Finds Apollo-Era NASA Computers In Dead Engineer's Basement

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  • Interesting... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Voyager529 ( 1363959 ) <voyager529@yahoP ... minus physicist> on Saturday July 15, 2017 @03:42PM (#54815545)

    So, the stuff is found in 2015, it's news in 2017, and while it's understandable that NASA doesn't want the computers back, there's no room for them in the Smithsonian, or any of the other space museums?

    Moreover, they missed the really interesting part in the summary: The computers are labeled CONTRACT NO. NAS5-2154, a contract which apparently NASA has no paperwork for. Between that, and over 2/3 of the tapes not having any verifiable mission data on them, something, somewhere, doesn't add up.

    To be fair, if it was some sort of secret contract, odds are good that 1970s NASA would have required the machines and tapes be destroyed at that time. Either way, definitely an interesting find, and I hope they'll end up in a museum.

    • Why? It is just junk. They were Apollo-era computers from a NASA subcontractor. It doesn't mean it was part of any Apollo mission at all.
    • 'Secret Contract"? Really? NASA had and has nearly NO connection to any DOD or other governmental customer programs in any way. Far from it, NASA competes with other organizations for funding. And the very few attempted collaborations - like with the AF "supplying" Atlas and Titan boosters, and another agency supplying Agena Target vehicles, and NASA attempting to test the MMU for the Air Force on Gemini flights - were generally problematic.

      I am pretty much certain tha

      • by mlyle ( 148697 )

        Man, why did NASA keep assisting in the development of all those fighter plane prototypes and research programs like X-53, X-31, etc then? :P A huge part of what the Dryden (now Armstrong) Flight Research Center does is military R&D, not to mention significant work at other centers.

      • 'Secret Contract"? Really? NASA had and has nearly NO connection to any DOD or other governmental customer programs in any way

        sure, NRO had no influence over space shuttle design, and there was no provision forcing NASA to keep at least one shuttle ready for launch at all times.

      • by lgw ( 121541 )

        NASA used to launch all the secret military stuff, for decades. It was only in the 90s IIRC that the Air Force moved to controlling most of its own launches. Heck, the space shuttle was designed for servicing military sats.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      "I hope they'll end up in a museum."

      In other news, a gold-covered wooden chest, and containing two stone tablets with Hebrew inscriptions, was found in the basement of a deceased archeology professor....
       

    • will come through and recover the analog contents of the tapes, and if possible release them to the public. Even if the data is 'of no historical significance', disk space is cheap today, and recovering old data which could be gone over with modern techniques by amateurs, or extracurricularly by professionals could reveal some insight that was otherwise overlooked, assuming of course documentation on those computer systems and/or the old mission data formats is available.

      Would be pretty hilarious for it to

    • I would recommend them contacting the Computer History Museum [computerhistory.org] in Mountain View. They curate this stuff all day long and they would have a better appreciation of what value it has than nearly anybody. And they are funded.

      A couple of years ago I let my neighbor use my recycle bin because his was overflowing. As it turns out he was a retired JPL engineer and what he was throwing out is tons of manuals from JPL back in the 70s. I much regret not contacting the CHM at the time but I was busy and just not thi

      • by Anonymous Coward

        They arenâ(TM)t accepting much of anything anymore. I offered them a rare, working example of an SGI/Tandem Challenge XL a few years ago, and even offered to transport it for them. They did not have a Challenge XL. Yet they turned down my offer.

      • Sadly, the last thing an electronic scrap dealer is going to do is contact somebody like the Computer History Museum. Scrappers want to rip the gold and it's all they are about. It's surprising this story even saw the light of day, because scrappers are pretty ruthless. They are the equivalent of construction workers who unearth archaeologically interesting materials. They, too, hate it when they find anything that slows them down from ripping in and building whatever they're being paid to build.

        I am no

        • They are the equivalent of construction workers who unearth archaeologically interesting materials. They, too, hate it when they find anything that slows them down from ripping in and building whatever they're being paid to build.

          Which is why the norm is to require the archaelogical site investigation to be done by a specialist contractor BEFORE the main site-clearance and construction contracts start. Typically 10% contingency is required for archaeology.

          But that's my country, not America.

    • by antdude ( 79039 )

      And a felony for taking work's properties out.

    • by Waffle Iron ( 339739 ) on Saturday July 15, 2017 @09:14PM (#54817097)

      The computers are labeled CONTRACT NO. NAS5-2154, a contract which apparently NASA has no paperwork for. Between that, and over 2/3 of the tapes not having any verifiable mission data on them, something, somewhere, doesn't add up.

      They've finally found the smoking gun! These were the machines that were used to Photoshop all the pix for the faked moon landings, and they must have erased the tapes and shredded the contracts to hide the evidence!

    • by AC-x ( 735297 )

      Here's the full discussion of the find and analysis of the tapes (which were found to be too badly damaged by mold to attempt data recovery) [nasa.gov]. All sounds pretty reasonable, no point spending a lot of money on discarded hardware and damaged tapes that there are existing better copies of.

    • "The two computers are so heavy that a crane was likely used to move the machines."

      I'm wondering how the former engineer was able to sneak a suitable truck and crane past securityto 'sneak off' with these two machines.

      They are most likely worthless 40+ year old mid-range IBM somputers, like a System/38 machine, and who cares about them now?

      I suspect they are nothing more than computers that logged data sent back by probes, nothing more than that.

    • That contract was just an Area 51 thing. Nothing to see here. Move along, move along.

    • by cstacy ( 534252 )

      CONTRACT NO. NAS5-2154, a contract which apparently NASA has no paperwork for.

      Gospel

  • by perpenso ( 1613749 ) on Saturday July 15, 2017 @04:08PM (#54815667)

    A NASA archivist concluded there's no evidence the tapes contained anything of historic significance.

    Yes, there is no evidence when one does not look. I believe that a few dozen reels had labels; hundreds of reels had no labels, their contents unknown. If was a great leap of faith to assume that they were all Pioneer telemetry. Other missions? Software?

    Now if they said we don't have the equipment, software or budget to clean and restore the degraded and molded tape, and that the likelihood of successful restoration is quite low, that would have been more honest than "there's no evidence".

    • by decep ( 137319 )

      For every "important" artifact, there are thousands of junk artifacts. Especially on large scale government projects. Large scale projects tend to generate a lot of waste.

      The movie Contact had a great line for government spending.... "Why build one when you can have two for twice the price." When you have the budget, it always better to have too much instead of not enough.

      • by mikael ( 484 )

        It's better to have spare parts than have to have downtime. Even with a laptop and living out in the countryside, it saved me many times to have a spare hard disk drive and screwdriver kit.

    • Indeed. The suggestion from the archivist makes me worry about what else he has come across and destroyed.

      It seems from the pictures that part of the equipment for reading these tapes is mostly there. It would need to be cleaned, studied and selectively powered up while sampling output lines. There are plenty of hobbyists and geeks that would love to try to restore the hardware and read those tapes, including myself.
      • The scrapper doesn't want people like you to have any access at all to the stuff in that basement. There's gold in there and that's all a scrapper is interested in.

        • If you mean getting gold from old electronics, it used to be like that, but there can be much more money in auctioning the hardware as it is.

          The 'scapper' is interested in money. Whether it comes from gold or not is irrelevant.
    • Budget always goes without saying. Without evidence or anything else that leads them to believe that the tapes might warrant a closer look, the time and money is always going to go to something they know will be worth it.

      That said, I think they should offer them to qualified enthusiasts to restore. I'm sure there are people would be keen to put in the effort to find out, in exchange for a tiny piece of Pioneer history.

    • How about the lost raw video feed of the Apollo 11 moon landing [wikipedia.org]? The existing video copy everyone has seen was made with a video camera pointed at a monitor displaying the raw feed. 1968-1972 covers exactly the time frame of this lost video. Anyone at NASA would have to be a fool to not at least check out what's on these tapes.
      • If it's nine track 2400 bpi 1/2" tapes, it isn't going to contain a 'video feed.' It only carries 2400 bits (or bytes) of data per inch. That means that big long tape doesn't contain a 'video feed.' NASA didn't do MPEG back then, and videotape at the time was helical scan and very resource intensive. A lot of date then (and now, obviously) just streams by.

    • by UnknowingFool ( 672806 ) on Saturday July 15, 2017 @07:20PM (#54816653)

      Yes, there is no evidence when one does not look.

      The archivist didn't look on the tapes but perhaps the archivist knew enough about the computer to know nothing of value could exist. For example the control reels may not be data but software for controlling a piece of equipment. Since that equipment doesn't have use anymore what would be point of needing the control software?

      • Most tapes were unlabeled and the contents unexamined. The archivist knows nothing about the content of the tapes, not even if they were blank. At best, he's guessing. At worst, he's too lazy to do his job.
        • The archivist knows nothing about the content of the tapes, not even if they were blank. At best, he's guessing. At worst, he's too lazy to do his job.

          The archivist did physically examine the tapes but did not read them. They might require a great of work locating the right equipment. He also noted that many of them had severe to moderate mold.

          The owner says: "They belonged to IBM Allegheny Center Pittsburgh, PA 15212. During the 1968-1972 timeframe, IBM was getting rid of the items so [redacted engineer] asked if he could have them and was told he could have them."

          So maybe the archivist knows something about the data that IBM handled during that time fra

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      Yes, there is no evidence when one does not look. I believe that a few dozen reels had labels; hundreds of reels had no labels, their contents unknown. If was a great leap of faith to assume that they were all Pioneer telemetry. Other missions? Software?

      The 'smoking gun' here is that whatever was on the tapes was important enough that the engineer squirreled it away in his basement. Was he simply a hoarder? Did he pull tapes just so that he could someday bring up a 1/2" drive of his own, so he wanted some old scratch tape around to use on it?

      Did the 'archivists' investigate this at all, or was this just a pesky situation interfering with whatever it was they wanted to be doing instead?

    • by dbIII ( 701233 )

      and that the likelihood of successful restoration is quite low

      In the oil and gas industry tapes from the 1970s are transcribed nearly every single week somewhere around the world. You are likely to find some place with extensive experience in the phone book, especially in Texas, California, South Africa, UK etc etc.
      However, recovering complete files could be another story, but a lot of file formats can cope with a few bits missing.

    • by AC-x ( 735297 )

      From the published discussions [nasa.gov] they decided that because there was no evidence of historically significant data it wasn't worth the effort to try to restore the severely molded tapes.

  • About 20 years ago as a teenager I was visiting relatives in Huntsville Alabama. Walking through a middle class residential neighborhood I noticed a large pile of oolldd 100 Meg Zip drives marked 'Declassified' in a big box. Well being the dedicated dumpster diver and general scavenger and general conspiracy nut I was at the time I snagged all I could and took them hold with me to.... another state in the US. Zip Drives were already way out of day by that time so I had to get a used reader for the things

  • by jfdavis668 ( 1414919 ) on Saturday July 15, 2017 @05:04PM (#54815963)
    The tape probably only contain copies of old Doctor Who episodes.
  • Junk? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anne Thwacks ( 531696 ) on Saturday July 15, 2017 @05:21PM (#54816075)
    This looks like a CDC 163 - an early example of Seymour Cray's work, and nothing to do with IBM. Pre-1970 though. I would expect museums to be very interested.

    The tapes are standard 1/2", probably recorded as 7 track at 556bpi NRZ, with the opposite parity to IBM - cos that is normal for CDC of that age. Probably readable by sprinkling iron oxide and counting the ridges or you could replace the electrolytics in the tape drives. SCSI compatible tape drives are available on Ebay..

    • Hmmm SCSI to USB adapters do exist...

      • Also, SCSI ISA and PCI cards exist. Or we could wait for whatever supplants USB and hope that a SCSI adapter is made for it so we can sit at our Windows 12 or whatever machines and read the data.

        For pete's sake. I hope some of you get the sarcasm I am implying.

      • by dbIII ( 701233 )

        Hmmm SCSI to USB adapters do exist...

        Most are utter crap at any speed with abandonware drivers. You are better off with a card in an old PC (or old laptop with the PCMIA card) since you'd need an old OS to drive the SCSI to USB adapter anyway.

    • All the tapes had significant amount of mould and it was considered a health risk to try to read them.

      My wedding video tape original master too was affected seriously by mold. We were able to take it to India where they took the tape out of the cassette, cleaned the tape and re wound it in a new cassette. The tape was readable but quality of the video was severely degraded. If it is digital tape I dont think any useful info could be recovered.

  • HOW THE FUCK DO THEY KNOW? This is a historical mistake. I beseech any affluent SD reader to buy these tapes quick like a bunny before they get shredded or something.
    • by Bomarc ( 306716 )

      Unlabelled or labelled without mission-related identifying information: approximately 215 reels

      The archivist’s final recommendation: Destroy the tapes. “There is no evidence that suggests this material is historically significant... I recommend disposal through the immediate destruction of all magnetic tapes.”

      I wish we {I} could recover the data and see that is there. The 215 reels of unlabeled data could be of value; and I believe is worth the time to investigate.

      • Fuck the archivist. The tapes would have brought a decent return if they were just thrown on eBay and advertised as what they are (unread unknown NASA tapes.)

        It might upset the archivist's apple cart, though. They probably have their own agenda and don't need pesky amateurs getting access to the tapes and potentially proving them wrong.

        • by MrKaos ( 858439 )

          So invested in their opinions that the possibility of finding something that will contradict their invested mental effort is too much to face.

      • I guess if you pay them the shipping fees they will send them to you.

    • by MrKaos ( 858439 )

      HOW THE FUCK DO THEY KNOW? This is a historical mistake. I beseech any affluent SD reader to buy these tapes quick like a bunny before they get shredded or something.

      Fuck yeah. Ok the recovery process may be a bit tedious, but they have the gear now and what other Apollo era data can be read with these machines.

      All of it would probably fit on a usb stick.

  • Why would anybody retire to Pittsburgh? I thought engineers made enough to retire to somewhere worth living.

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