UAH researcher helps preserve at-risk Apollo program recordings

A new historic preservation project at the University of Alabama in Huntsville is revealing a behind-the-scenes perspective of the groundbreaking Apollo space program.

UAH’s M. Louis Salmon Library Archives and Special Collections is working to preserve an extensive collection of film and recordings in a project that will make it easier to share the significant milestones in spaceflight with the digital generation.

The work to digitize 186 film reels, nine audio reels and 53 audiocassettes is funded by an $18,775 Council on Library and Information Resources Recordings at Risk Grant.

UAH is one of 20 institutions selected nationwide to receive the award in the fifth grant cycle. It comes amid worldwide celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing and a re-inspection of Huntsville’s leading role in the moon missions.

The university’s own activities to mark the occasion included special tours and exhibits of Apollo-related archives, an opportunity to record personal memories of the Apollo 11 mission and a fireworks display.

Apollo recordings
UAH archivist Drew Adan is helping to preserve at-risk audio and video recordings focusing on the groundbreaking Apollo space program. (Image: UAH)

At this time, the media materials involved in the grant project are in the hands of a third-party vendor that is digitizing them.  The work is expected to be complete this fall, according to Drew Adan, archivist and primary investigator for the grant.

The painstaking project involves inspecting the materials frame by frame. Mold has been found in some areas, requiring cleanup.

“It’s kind of a race against time to preserve these things, because they are not going to last forever,” Adan said.

With the materials at high risk because of physical degradation and obsolescence, the Recordings at Risk grant is impeccably timed.  Researchers can migrate the material from an outdated analog format to digital files that will be preserved and shared, he said.

UNIQUE PERSPECTIVE

Content includes oral history interviews with people who worked on the Apollo program and rare home movies. Some audio and video materials predate Apollo, going all the way back to the roots of rocketry, Adan said.

“It offers a unique perspective on family life of those who worked on the program, specifically members of the German American community and how they acclimated to life in Huntsville,” he said.

There’s an exciting discovery aspect to the project. The Salmon Library at UAH has some vintage projectors, and Adan has been able to view a portion of the materials. Other content is yet to be identified.

UAH archive
A Saturn V rocket sits on the launch pad before the 1969 launch of Apollo 10, a dress rehearsal for the moon landing mission. (Image: NASA)

UAH Archives and Special Collections gathers, organizes, preserves and makes accessible materials of enduring value that support the research strengths of the university. It also houses materials that document UAH history with focus on the following areas: the history of aerospace, flight, and space, science fiction literature, local and regional politics, oral histories and the history and culture of Alabama’s Tennessee River Valley.

The Council on Library and Information Resources is an independent, nonprofit organization that forges strategies to enhance research, teaching and learning environments in collaboration with libraries, cultural institutions and communities of higher learning.

The Recordings at Risk program, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support the preservation of rare and unique audio and audiovisual content of high scholarly value, will award $4.7 million between January 2017 and April 2021.

SHARING HISTORY

Once the project is complete, the UAH library plans to post the recordings on its digital platform, Adan said.

“Through this project, we will share these materials with a much larger audience. For many people, especially for younger generations, if it doesn’t exist online, it doesn’t exist,” he said.

Adan said he hopes the project draws more attention to the Salmon Library’s broader collection that traces the university’s contributions to spaceflight and exploration, including footage of microgravity experiments, Skylab and the Space Shuttle.

“We hope this archival project shines a bright light on our collection as a whole, because this is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said.

The M. Louis Salmon Library is located at 4700 Holmes Avenue in Huntsville.