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July 15, 2017

NASA computers, tapes from Apollo era discovered in basement of late engineer

by John_A

Why it matters to you

For fans of the NASA space program, the contents of a deceased engineer’s basement turned out to be quite the treasure trove.

A couple of NASA computers dating back to the Apollo mission era have been recovered from the basement of a deceased engineer in Pittsburgh. The revelation comes from a NASA Office of the Inspector General (OIG) report, which was released with the engineer’s name redacted in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

Hundreds of tape reels — many of them unmarked — were found alongside the computer. The labeled tapes appear to contain details of space science-related missions such as NASA’s Helios and Pioneer 10 and 11, which first flew by Jupiter and Saturn.

NASA was first contacted about the objects by a scrap dealer who had purchased them from the engineer’s heir. “Please tell NASA these items were not stolen,” the heir told the scrap dealer. “They belonged to IBM Allegheny Center Pittsburgh, PA 15212. During the 1968-1972 time frame, IBM was getting rid of the items so [redacted engineer] asked if he could have them and was told he could have them.”

Because the computers were marked with a plate labeled Goddard Space Flight Center NASA Property, the dealer decided to reach out to the agency for clarification.

The sheer size of the machines may have been enough to deter the agency from reclaiming them. The computers are too heavy to be moved manually and likely required a crane to transport, according to the report. “No. We do not need the computers,” NASA wrote. “We have no use for those computers.”

Though the tapes may sound intriguing, they didn’t hold up well in the engineer’s care. In fact, an archivist from NASA Goddard Archives recommended they be destroyed as they were moldy and had little historical value.

“Based on the decision reached by the Goddard science experts and myself, there is no evidence that suggests this material is historically significant, and the lack of contextual contract-related information about the creation or the content of this material, coupled with the poor condition and the potential health risk posed by this material, I recommend disposal through the immediate destruction of all magnetic tapes,” the archivist wrote.

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