Building 8 holds some pretty strong memories for me. Unimpressive from the outside, nearly identical to its neighbors 7 and 9, the warehouse-sized block of bland government architecture sits in the farthest corner from the main entrance to NASA’s Johnson Space Center. The tourist trams that wind through the campus don’t even bother to point it out. Yet inside Building 8, in a walk-in vault chilled below freezing by liquid nitrogen, is the most expensive motion picture film ever shot.
Back in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, when NASA was sending men to the moon at astronomical cost, the spacecraft they returned in splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. The astronauts were hoisted into helicopters while their command modules bobbed on the waves until giant aircraft carriers pulled alongside to crane them onto the flight deck. Technicians in hazard suits reached in to retrieve the lunar sample cases and the film magazines that recorded the mission. These irreplaceable artifacts were divided equally and placed aboard two jets, in case one crashed en route, and flown to Ellington Field adjacent to the Space Center.
The magazines were convoyed to Building 8 where NASA had an optical printer that copied the 16mm film contained in them, then they were vaulted and dry-frozen. One copy was made of each magazine load, a negative printed off the original camera positive. For the next twenty years, with exceptions for special shots—like Armstrong’s first step—the public saw only copies of copies struck from that primary negative, which inevitably lost color and clarity the further removed they became.
In the mid-1980s I was able to convince NASA’s film techs to try blowing up those 16mm camera originals to 35mm so people could see that amazing footage on big theater screens the way it deserved to be seen. They weren’t all that hard to convince—they’d always wanted to see it that way themselves—they just needed someone to prove it could be done without damaging the historic originals, and then to pay for it. Also the magazines couldn’t leave Building 8.
To make a long hard story short and sweet (and shortchange several people who made it happen), that amazing footage did indeed get blown up and none of it was damaged in the process. It took three years in fits and starts, was more difficult and costly than anyone anticipated, especially me—but none of that has anything to do with my strongest memory of Building 8, other than being the reason I was there.
It was the morning of January 28, 1986, and I was standing in the lobby watching the NASA closed circuit TV with everyone else who worked in the building. We were watching the countdown to launch of the space shuttle Challenger. Like many of those around me I had met several members of the seven-person crew onboard that day, and made friends with two of them.
Judy Resnick was the second American woman and Ron McNair was the second African-American to fly in space, but as Pete Conrad once cheerfully said to me, “nobody remembers what the second person to do something does.” Pete had been the second person to land on the moon—to pilot his ship to the surface—and like him Judy and Ron were far more relaxed and cheerful people than their trailblazing predecessors. She hung out at the same funky Italian bistro I found congenial, and he kept a saxophone in the trunk of his car to help him wind down after long training sessions. He had a little alto sax stowed aboard that morning and planned to serenade the earth with it.
Today Building 8, like the rest of the world, has moved on from analog to digital but it still is the home of NASA’s amazing imagery of people in outer space, which is why I am back. The lobby looks the same as it did thirty years ago. The long curved wood-paneled reception desk hasn’t been changed or replaced, and neither have the fake marble floor tiles. I can stand in exactly the same spot I stood in that heartbreaking January morning. And I try to smile in memory of my lost friends, because they were people who smiled a lot.