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Author Topic:   Attempts at digitizing NASA data tapes
apollo16uvc
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From: Next to LEM, Descartes Highlands, Moon
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posted 02-15-2018 02:19 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for apollo16uvc   Click Here to Email apollo16uvc     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I am in contact with someone who will help me read NASA data tapes from the 60s to 70s. This person has experience reading these type of data tapes, as he has done so before for JPL.

This would be an example of one such tape, though not the same mission as I have seen so far.

Some quick looks at the tapes showed Lunar Orbiter, Apollo, Skylab and satellite 1/2 inch width and 10.5 inch diameter computer tape reels. If we get any data out of them, they will be uploaded as public domain to archive.org

Below are relevant parts of a conversation we are having:

Me: Today I played part of the tape through an AKAI X201D. I did not expect to get any usable data, maybe a faint signal.

You can find WAV files and spectrograms here. Test001 through Test003 were manually moved along the heads. Test004 and test006 were fed along the heads via the capstan at 3 3/4. Test005 is played at 7 1/2 inches per second.

Test005 has a continuous tone. Test006 is the very beginning of the tape, and has weird bursts at the beginning.

Contact: Having done a number of these for JPL, I'd say that this is a 7-track 800 BPI NRZI tape. Depending on the exact tape drive, it can probably be read on a 729-equipped 1401. Making sense of the data, however, is another story. Early 1960s NASA tapes tended to be 7090/94 ones, with later ones, Univac 1100 series right up through the early 1980s.

Or you can send it to me and I'll extract the data. My contacts at JPL say there are thousands of these things kicking around.

Me: Can you any sense out of the sound recordings I have made? What are the short bursts on test006 and the tone on test005.

I would be incredible thankful if you could extract the data. How to best ship a tape? I have to send mine from The Netherlands to your place, which I assume is America. Any further tapes I get I might have shipped directly to you from a seller in America. Whatever you want. I know a lot of people will be excited to look at the recovered data.

Is it possible you can try and get the tape identified by the people at JPL? I did scrub off the upper label to reveal the lower label with some more information.

Contact: No, I do not think that I could do anything with your audio. Perhaps an examination with a magnetic developer (such as Kyread) and a low power microscope would verify my suppositions. That would at least tell you how many tracks are involved and define the inter-block spacing, if applicable.

There's a faint possibility that these might also be analog telemetry tapes, but a view with a magnetic developer would verify that. However, what I can see of the partially-covered label seems to indicate a standard digital tape, but the note on the label that says "audio" is puzzling. Were that the case, you should be able to get something using an audio recorder to play these back.

I was under the impression that tapes used for analog telemetry back in the 60s was very different from standard 10.5" 1/2" tape, but you never know.

They're definitely digital tapes if you have blocks of data separated by approximately 3/4" of erased space. That's standard 7 track format.

Finally, a lot of these tapes are simple recertified "scratch tapes" — that is, used tapes returned to the scratch pool and run through a certifier (which erases all data). A tape label that specifies contents and the name of the programmer holds out the best hope, but even so, in the lots I've handled, about 10% were recertified scratch. NASA, like a lot of government operations, re-used tapes heavily, trimming off tape at the beginning when it wore out and applying a new BOT marker. Some of the tapes that I've worked on have several hundred feed sacrificed.

A lot of this stuff is mixed-format data (some text, a lot of binary) data that may be very difficult to suss out without the program that created it. For example, here's one of the tapes that I did: Mostly 7094 floating-point data with a few bits of 7090 BCDIC mixed in.

Me: Really cool that you worked on NASA tapes before, how did that come to be? And how do the tapes usually end up in the 'wild'?

There are many unknowns, but with small steps I believe we can figure this out.

I looked around for Kyread, and buying from their website the shipping cost alone is 150 dollars. I can buy magnetic viewing film much cheaper, do you think it has enough resolution to view the tracks?

If it does have analog telemetry, is there a special type of audio recorder we need to play them on? or will any 7 track multi track recorder do? I do not know if a 1/2 inch 7 track audio recorder exist, 1/2 inch 8 track tape recorders were more common. Today I spooled the tape through my 1/4 inch 4 track stereo recorder again, this time there were 4 to 5 distinct frequency tones in the spectogram instead of one. Could it be overlapping tracks?

Is it possible rectifying a tape causes this continuous tone? I may get some NASA tapes soon that have a greater potential to hold data.

Contact: My tapes came directly from NASA JPL in Pasadena. I do not own them — and they were returned after data retrieval, along with the data retrieved from them. In other words, it's JPL's property, not mine and I treat it that way.

Kyread is nothing more than 1 to 3 micron iron particles in a fast-evaporating fluid (it used to be a type of Freon, but since that was banned, methyl perfluoroisobutyl ether is used). It is relatively inert, so it does not affect the coating or base material. You shake the bottle up and drop a drop of the suspension on the tape and allow the solution to evaporate. Since the iron particles are so small, you can visualize very small features in the tape. With a decent chemistry lab, it should not be difficult to mix some of this up in your location, assuming that the carrier liquid is legal in the EU.

When I have a new tape, unless I'm very certain about the content, this is always the first step. Tapes labeled as 9 track often turn out to be 7 track and vice-versa. What are you going to believe, your eyes or some lying label?

The other thing is preparation of the medium. Normally, the procedure is to "bake" the tape, then run it through a tape cleaning machine. Additional treatment may be necessary, such as lubrication, to get the tape to read. After all, you have no idea of the storage conditions during the 50 or so years that the tape has been in storage. It's not uncommon for splicing tape (used to attach leaders) to dry out and let go, so you have to be prepared for that. BOT and EOT markers similarly dry out and fall off...

The tapes you pictured above are certainly data tapes and definitely 7-track (9 track tapes don't usually occur with even parity). But you can't get your expectations too high. The Apollo program involved hundreds of subcontractors who generated probably tens of thousands of tapes. The GE tapes you show above may be nothing more than engine test data — and like such things, you need a Rosetta stone to interpret it, since it's unlikely that the data will contain any clues. Before the days of high-speed telecom and big disk drives, tape was king. Outfits like NASA ordered tapes by the truckload.

But, if you're willing to take a shot, I'm willing to have a go at it.

Our conversation continued in private and got quite technical. I will try to get the tracks visualized on the tape currently with me and am looking into getting it played on a multitrack 1/2 recorder, if it is analog telemetry we might get something.

As for the data tapes, my contact will handle those.

apollo16uvc
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From: Next to LEM, Descartes Highlands, Moon
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posted 02-15-2018 02:21 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for apollo16uvc   Click Here to Email apollo16uvc     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
So what is going on right now?
  1. Several data tapes are being sent to my contact.

  2. Several more will get an attempt to be bought, if I have no competition at bidding their price will stay reasonable. Currently there is a tape from Apollo 16 for sale, which is my top priority to get. The other ones for sale are from Skylab.

  3. I will try to get the tracks on my "Audio" tape visualized with magnetic viewing film. I will also try to get someone with a 7 to 9 track 1/2 inch multi-track audio recorder to play It. If the tape contains analog telemetry this may be possible.
Can you help?

Yes! If you have any tapes lying around, know the location of tapes, auctions of tapes, or would like to donate money to digitize as much tapes as possible; please contact me via my email at: apollo16uvc@gmail.com.

apollo16uvc
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From: Next to LEM, Descartes Highlands, Moon
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posted 02-17-2018 01:39 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for apollo16uvc   Click Here to Email apollo16uvc     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Tape: NASA Automatic Data Processing 4141 has arrived. Update written by contact:
The tape arrived today — the photos don't do it justice(?). The reel is chipped and absolutely filthy — it looks as if it spent the past 50 years on the floor of someone's garden shed.

At this point, it's difficult to tell how much of the tape is intact. This is my plan:
  1. Bake the tape for a day or two
  2. Run it through the cleaning machine a couple of times to remove as much of the dirt as possible
  3. Clean the reel and re-spool the tape
  4. Try to see if there's anything readable
And then:
Well, I unreeled a bit of the tape; I didn't find a BOT marker, so I suspected that the first few meters of the tape are history

Here's what I see when I look at the tape:

9-track, not 7! If the date on the tape is correct, this means it was produced on an IBM System/360, as almost nobody else had working 9 track drives then. Even in 1965, IBM was shipping the first S/360s out with 729 7-track drives. It took them awhile to get the bugs out of the 2400 series drives.

Testing the very beginning of this very wrinkled tape shows data on the first few cm, so if there was a leader, it's been long gone.

I'll bake and clean the tape and attach a BOT marker about 3 m in and see what I can see with my 9-track drives. This may take a few days.

apollo16uvc
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posted 02-18-2018 06:37 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for apollo16uvc   Click Here to Email apollo16uvc     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
The tracks on the tape visualized with a magnetic viewing solution:

apollo16uvc
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posted 02-25-2018 05:12 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for apollo16uvc   Click Here to Email apollo16uvc     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
A closeup of the tracks:

Buel
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posted 02-25-2018 06:08 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Buel   Click Here to Email Buel     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
This is fascinating! Please keep us posted...

apollo16uvc
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From: Next to LEM, Descartes Highlands, Moon
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posted 03-03-2018 06:28 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for apollo16uvc   Click Here to Email apollo16uvc     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
The NASA ADP tape may not be readable with conventional computer tape drives, as the ADP contains telemetry and not data. We may figure out a way to digitize it eventually.

We have had a success with two other tapes though! Switch-Action TP 1820 and 2909 have been read and successfully converted to .tap and ASCII text. I have had a look and think it is absolutely fascinating.

When I have the time and some more info I will make a public archive and put the files there. Can't wait to share this with you!

SpaceAholic
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posted 03-03-2018 06:45 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for SpaceAholic   Click Here to Email SpaceAholic     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Have you attempted to read tapes from the Apollo Command Module Data Storage Equipment? Retain a DSE on this end and there is some interest in ascertaining if it still holds mission vox/data.

Dave_Johnson
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posted 03-03-2018 10:20 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Dave_Johnson   Click Here to Email Dave_Johnson     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I'm curious about the solid 4th track on the tapes that has a constant signal. Presumably it's a sort of sync track that allows the drive to determine if the bit is 0 or 1 on the other tracks as compared to that track?

apollo16uvc
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From: Next to LEM, Descartes Highlands, Moon
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posted 03-04-2018 03:27 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for apollo16uvc   Click Here to Email apollo16uvc     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
quote:
Originally posted by SpaceAholic:
Have you attempted to read tapes from the Apollo Command Module Data Storage Equipment?
I am not reading the tapes, I send them to an American that has a data recovery company and he has digitized tapes for NASA before.

Is that a flown item? if so it may be of extreme historical significance to digitize the tape. I can forward you to the person that has been taking care of my tapes, but I doubt he will be able to do much with your drive and tape. His experience are with computer tapes, not telemetry and vox. The Switch Action tapes are computer tapes.

Your best bet may be to contact NASA about your drive and tape. Please keep us updated about it.

apollo16uvc
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posted 03-04-2018 04:28 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for apollo16uvc   Click Here to Email apollo16uvc     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
The tapes with their files can be found here. Here is a photo of tape 1820.

All thanks go to Chuck for reading the 7-track tapes for me. This would not have been possible without his help. More tape recovery may come from him later so stay tuned.

apollo16uvc
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From: Next to LEM, Descartes Highlands, Moon
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posted 03-17-2018 12:29 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for apollo16uvc   Click Here to Email apollo16uvc     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Two more tapes have arrived this week, a quick update below:
The second set of tapes arrived in good form. At first blush, they seem to be more switch panel data, but we'll know more later.

Unlike the last batch that were equipped with poly "tape hanger" strips, these were in 60s-era 3M hard styrene cases. That was good news and bad news. The good news is that the cases use a weatherstrip-type rubber foam to seal the edges of the two case halves. The bad news is that the foam has gone the way of all old rubber and deteriorated, essentially gluing the case halves together. With some coaxing and hard pulling, however, they came apart. I removed the bad foam so that this won't be a problem in the future.

I baked and cleaned the tapes (1179 was a bit sticky) and did a quick run-through of them.

2090 reads perfectly; no issues — the data looks much like the previous tapes; 132-character records of what I'm supposing are switch legends. Only one single parity error (I can isolate it to a single byte). 14,404 records amounting to about 2 MB.

1179 starts off the same way, but after about 663 blocks, everything goes to hell. Parity errors, short blocks, incomplete records. The only way I can think of resurrecting anything is to simply read without retrying all the data I can, and then trying to make some sense of the result. My suspicion is that the tape was stored (for years) close to a magnetic field and so became partially erased. Physically, the tape is in fine condition; not shedding or displaying any other physical damage.

apollo16uvc
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posted 03-18-2018 03:13 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for apollo16uvc   Click Here to Email apollo16uvc     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
2090 has been uploaded.

apollo16uvc
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posted 03-20-2018 11:59 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for apollo16uvc   Click Here to Email apollo16uvc     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
We are currently brainstorming on the best way to digitize 1179. When processing the BCDIC data to ASCII we get mostly garbage and the occasional readable string.

The best way might be to read it without any retries and try and make something out of it, this may requirements a firmware hack of the drive. The .TAP format does support forward and backwards retries but it reads the same errors each time.

A photo of a tape drive with 1179 mounted:

apollo16uvc
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posted 06-07-2018 09:25 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for apollo16uvc   Click Here to Email apollo16uvc     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Four more tapes have been sent and received. This time relating to the Pioneer 10 and/or 11 probes.
The tapes showed up today in a single box. Each tape is shrink-wrapped; so far so good.

Judging from the labels, I suspect that this is imaging photopolarimeter (IPP) data from Pioneer 10 or 11. Neither spacecraft had a real camera per se; images were constructed from the IPP data. University of Arizona optical science center was the force behind the design and test of the IPP. The IPP, to my understanding, operated a bit like the old mechanical Baird television system. The IPP had an aperture and was spun to create a "scan" pattern, digitized and returned as a bit stream of data.

Since I've seen papers from 2014 using the original Pioneer IPP data to assess background radiation, I suspect the data is still very much around.

As to how to interpret the data on the tapes, we'll have to see what we get.

If we are able to read them I will try to contact some people that have bought the other seven tapes and will try to borrow them for data recovery. Updates will follow.

apollo16uvc
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posted 06-07-2018 10:40 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for apollo16uvc   Click Here to Email apollo16uvc     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
One of the four tapes:

oly
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posted 06-18-2018 06:38 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for oly   Click Here to Email oly     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I found this article from a photography site that describes a team that did something similar with the Lunar Orbiter photo data from 1966.

apollo16uvc
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posted 06-25-2018 06:23 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for apollo16uvc   Click Here to Email apollo16uvc     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
An update on the Pioneer tapes:
I had a go at the first of the new tapes (qk7992h); it's a 800 NRZI 9-track tape and it's EBCDIC on the first couple of records. The tape is about 6MB and largely seems to be binary data. The header mentions that this is May 21, 1978 and contains the word "VESTA" and apparently the name of the person responsible "ZELLNER".

By and large, the tape read just fine, with only a couple of single-byte errors. So now I have some tinkering to do before I can give you much more.

apollo16uvc
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posted 07-04-2018 02:56 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for apollo16uvc   Click Here to Email apollo16uvc     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I'm starting here with the tape QK7992H from NASA in the lot of 4. I suspect that it's the best as it's probably the original.

At any rate, count this as a test only — there appears to be only one uncorrected parity error in block 130.

Note that any text in these is EBCDIC, not ASCII. The data structure appears to be fixed length records of 83 (total) bytes, each record starting off with its number in EBCDIC. Initial records are entirely in text; subsequent records are binary data.

For example, the first physical block (translated from EBCDIC to ASCII) is...

[Code omitted]

More discovery — the University of Arizona tapes (3 of them) turn out to be 7 track, not 9, unlike the NASA-provided tape. I've got to see if I can discover what mainframe the UofA science department was using before I can make sense of them.

apollo16uvc
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posted 07-30-2018 07:39 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for apollo16uvc   Click Here to Email apollo16uvc     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
The data on QK7992H has been converted to ASCII which reveals more metadata, such as exposure and processing information.

Three Pioneer tapes have been read but none are readable. A fourth one with Pioneer 11 data has been send.

I have successfully digitized a NASA fortan punchcard from an eBay photo but I failed to acquire the lot. Hopefully I can come in contact with the buyer and borrow the +2400 cards. They seem to contain data on the Saturn-5C nuclear. Orbit, debrish and launch calculations on a Saturn V nuclear stage.

One card says the following:
V/3K/SOS Lunar Direct Ascent

Anybody got an idea what that means?

apollo16uvc
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posted 08-04-2018 02:28 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for apollo16uvc   Click Here to Email apollo16uvc     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
NASA Switch Action Tape 1179 has finally been digitized with minimal read errors. With some new code and recalibrated read-amplifiers the results have gotten much better.

It has been uploaded to archive.org.

Two Pioneer 11 tapes have arrived, what we know now:

The tapes have arrived in good shape today. They are that at the first inspection labeled "1600 bpi," so 9-track PE density, which is usually much more more reliable than NRZI 800 (7 or 9 tracks).

Looking closely at the two tapes that just arrived, I've found a puzzle. Both have labels that indicate that they're 7-track 556 BPI. But one also has a later label indicating 9-track 1600 BPI. As to what they
actually are will be determined once they're out of the "oven."

apollo16uvc
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From: Next to LEM, Descartes Highlands, Moon
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posted 08-23-2018 02:51 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for apollo16uvc   Click Here to Email apollo16uvc     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
And now for something different: Punchcards!

Some time ago there was a lot of +2500 NASA punchcards for sale, I didn't win the auction unfortunately. I am processing the eBay photos, I got about 9 cards.

They seem to contain FORTAN code.

Here are two photos: 1 | 2.

Thanks go to Micheal for writing the code, you can find an old version here.

Has anybody got an idea what the Switch Action Table tapes were used for?

apollo16uvc
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From: Next to LEM, Descartes Highlands, Moon
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posted 08-29-2018 02:38 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for apollo16uvc   Click Here to Email apollo16uvc     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I got great news: We have processed the first image from one of my Pioneer tapes.

All thanks go to Leo for processing the first image on Pione-QK7992H tape. Thanks a lot for your work Leo!

Some info: The image data should contain two colour channels, blue and red, but for now we have just processed everything as grayscale. We are not sure yet how to process the colour channels. The image data is 6-bit with 64 intensity values. It has been processed into a PNG.

RAW image:

Contrast equalized:

Buel
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posted 08-29-2018 05:41 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Buel   Click Here to Email Buel     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Thanks for these. Can I ask what the image is?

apollo16uvc
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posted 09-08-2018 04:10 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for apollo16uvc   Click Here to Email apollo16uvc     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I have talked with Ted Stryk, and going from the info on the tape, he thinks it are zodiacal light observations. He has not yet replied to my images though.

apollo16uvc
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posted 09-08-2018 04:12 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for apollo16uvc   Click Here to Email apollo16uvc     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Okay, so someone has been looking through a lot of documents to try and solve the mystery behind our Switch Action Table tapes. Here is what he has found so far, some really great stuff. If anybody could try and find the documents he is looking for that would be great.
Check out these two extremely detailed docs: You won't find a definition of the the actual Switch Action Table tape format, but the tape is clearly describing the configuration information for the SLCC system.

On page 3-9/3-10 (56 in the PDF) of the programmer's manual, it mentions the "Discrete Executive":

The Discrete Executive initiates logging at both computers. There are a number of different types of discrete tables each containing specific data. These tables are:
  • LDO and MDO Profile table
  • LCCC and MLC Discrete Status tables for IODC's 5 and 7
  • General Discrete Log table (LDI, LDO, and MDI Changes)
  • MDO Issue table
Section 4.1.1 on 4-3 (p.66) describes "Launch Vehicle Input/Output, Discrete Input/Output" and give details on LDI/LDOs and MDIs/MDOs, which as suspected are LCCC/MLP Digital Input/Outputs.

73V1201 contains the test procedures for verifying the LCC computer software and interface to the launch vehicle are operating correctly. There's a lot of interesting details here, but first check out "Discrete Initialization and Modification (NT98/NT99)" (p.24). Section 5.2.2 (p.27) says:

5.2.2 Place cards in the card reader to perform the following action table modification:
  • MDI 0010 0N - LDO 1200 issued ON
  • MDI 1200 0N - LDO 0010 issued 0N
  • LDI 0033 0N - MDO 0619 issued 0N
  • LDI 0619 0N - MDO 0033 issued ON
There are numerous references to specific LDI/LDO/MDI/MDO numbers in the test procedures and while all of them don't match up with the data in the file, many do. On page 39 while testing the $DMON display monitor program, LDI0346 and MDI0459 are associated with the "ground camera arm switch" on the vehicle camera networks panel.

Another interesting example is the Launch Vehicle Data Adapter communication interfaces. See the "LVDA STATUS CODE CONVERSION CHART" on p.146. For example, if MDI0736 and MDI0734 are ON that indicates "PREPARE TO LAUNCH WITH A PLATFORM."

That sounds an awful lot like our tapes. My guess is they're the input data for the NT98 Discrete Initialization Program, which unfortunately isn't described in detail. If anyone can locate the following documents, I bet we'd find what we need there:

  • Specification for the Operating System for the Saturn V Launch Computer Complex, Volume 1, Revision 1: MSFC No. III-4-440-4

  • Operator Reference Manual for SLCC Progranrning System, MSFC No. lII-4-440-5, IBM No. 68-F11-0003, dated 15 June 1968.

  • User Instructions for Saturn V Launch Computer Complex Operating System and Test Programs: MSFC No. III-4-462-1

apollo16uvc
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posted 09-29-2018 01:56 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for apollo16uvc   Click Here to Email apollo16uvc     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
We have converted all six image files from the Pione-QK7992H tape to PNGs, and have processed multiple versions from them (contrast equalized, inverted, different colour combinations for duo-colour images).

All of the files will be published soon, together with information we could gather about the other six files we don't know how to process yet. We have asked for help from old Pioneer scientists and employees to process the six remaining files.

All files have their own folder with the PNGs, binary data, metadata and miscellaneous info.

We asked a collector who bought the other 8-something Pione tapes if he wants his tapes digitized for free. But unfortunately he has no interest in preserving his collection for future generations, a shame!

We are still looking for the documents mentioned in the previous reply, if you know where we can find them, please email us!

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