A pair of Apollo-era NASA computers and hundreds of mysterious tape reels have been discovered in a deceased engineer’s basement in Pittsburgh, according to a NASA Office of the Inspector General (OIG) report released in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
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.
The two computers are so heavy that a crane was likely used to move the machines, the report concluded.
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.”
“Please tell NASA these items were not stolen.”
NASA investigators picked up the 325 magnetic data tape reels on December 8, 2015. The cassettes measured 14 inches in diameter and were filled with half-inch magnetic tape. The tapes “were in poor condition and almost all were affected by moderate to severe mould.”
Most of the tapes were not labelled, but “of the tapes that were labelled, the content appeared to be space science related with missions including Pioneer and Helios and the inclusive date range was 1967-1974.”
NASA told the family of the deceased that it was not in the junk removal business. “No, we do not need the computers,” NASA told the family of the deceased. “We have no use for [them].”
The report drily notes, “The computers were not removed from the residence due to their size and weight.”
NASA Goddard Archives examined the mystery tapes, and the archivist’s report reads:
I conducted an initial assessment of the material on December 10, 2015. This assessment confirmed the approximate number of 325 magnetic data tape reels that each measured 14″ in diameter with a magnetic tape dimension of ½” and contained by a metal reel. The assessment also showed that the magnetic tapes were in poor condition and almost all were affected by moderate to severe mould, which is identified as a health risk. Most of the tapes were not labelled and of the tapes that were labelled, the content appeared to be space science related with missions including Pioneer and Helios and the inclusive dates range was 1961-1974. A final assessment of the tapes on April 3, 2016 further broke down of the content of the tapes into the following:
PN8 [Pioneer 8]: 1 reel
PN9 [Pioneer 9]: 2 reel
PN10 [Pioneer 10): 40 reels
PN11 [Pioneer 11]: 53 reels
HELl [or] HEL-A [Helios 1]: 10 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.”
After all the investigation, one final mystery remained unsolved. The NASA computers are labelled with a Contract Number: “CONTRACT NO. NAS5-2154.” NASA OIG was unable to find any records of any such contract. Given NASA once accidentally erased the Apollo 11 moon landing tapes, perhaps that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.
We contacted the NASA OIG for any additional info, but a spokesperson said they have no further comment beyond the results of the FOIA request.