NASA Computers from Apollo Era Found in Pittsburgh Basement
by Ryan Whitwam
Most of us don’t have anything really interesting in our basements, and certainly nothing of historical significance. In the case of a former engineer from Pittsburgh, his basement was home to a pair of NASA computers from the 1960s. After the unnamed engineer passed away, a scrap dealer was preparing to haul away the machines when he noticed the “Property of NASA” labels. The agency was contacted to figure out what the machines were and if they had any historical significance, but it’s all a bit mysterious.
This happened in late 2015 and early 2016, but we’re only hearing about the discovery now thanks to a report from the NASA Office of the Inspector General (OIG) that was part of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. The computers were first used in 1962, according to the badges affixed to them. That would have been in the era of the Pioneer missions and the early days of Apollo. There were also 325 magnetic tape reels, which is what NASA was more interested in checking out.
The computers themselves are each about the size of a refrigerator, and much more dense. The OIG report speculates that a crane was used to move the computers into the basement. As for how the computers came to be in said basement, the engineer’s heirs were keen to point out they were not stolen. According to family lore, the engineer worked at IBM Allegheny Center in Pittsburgh in the late 60s and early 70s. IBM was getting rid of old items like these computers, and the engineer asked if he could have them. Apparently the 325 tapes were just a bonus.
The tapes were handed over to NASA’s Goddard Archives for analysis. The reels were 14-inches across with quarter-inch magnetic data tape. Only some of the tapes were labeled, and those that were bore the names of some iconic missions like Pioneer 10 and Helios 1. There were 215 unlabeled reels.
This is the part of the story where you might expect an important discovery — a real feel-good moment. However, this story doesn’t have a happy ending. The OIG report explains that the tapes were in extremely poor condition, and most of them were heavily affected by mold. The NASA archives concluded that the labeled tapes did not contain any historically relevant data, but the mystery tapes will remain as such. The tapes were in such bad shape there was no guarantee the data could be recovered, and the process would be extremely expensive. The poor condition and low likelihood they contained anything important led the OIG to recommend the tapes be destroyed.
As for the computers (also in poor shape), NASA informed the family it had no use for those either. NASA was unable to find a record of the contract number listed, so it was unclear what other missions they might have taken part in.
Maybe these devices could have been a historic — or at least worth keeping — if people 40 years ago had known how important the space program would be to history. We’ll never know if there was something notable on those tapes. I guess it’s hard to recognize history when you’re living it.
Originally published at www.extremetech.com on July 14, 2017.