And now, NASA is undertaking a project to put all of that material into a central archive that can be searched by space flight aficionados.
In an announcement Thursday, NASA said it has reached a deal with the nonprofit, San Francisco-based Internet Archive to scan, archive and manage the agency's vast collection. The effort will be paid for solely through grants, foundations and individual contributions received by the Internet Archive.
NASA already has much of its collection online, but the material is divided up into more than 20 different imagery categories, making it hard to find specific images or archives unless a user knows exactly where it is, said spokesman Bob Jacobs. "One of the challenges, and the thing that interested the Internet Archive, is that the agency didn't have digital media storage [procedures in place] as one of its core competencies," he said. "The bottom line here is that we have lots of assets ... but we had no real coordinated and certainly no comprehensive search capability ... to find the best of our images."
That will change with the creation of a single resource online where visitors can search and find the high- and low-resolution images and information they want, he said.
The agency will begin by providing the most easily accessible images and other resources so they can be put into the new online database, with additional material added as it is unearthed. "There's 50 years' worth of materials here, and it's in a variety of media and locations," including 10 NASA field centers, Jacobs said.
Much of what is in the collection may be surprising when it is released as the five-year project gets up to speed, he said. "I don't think that any of us know the depth to which a lot of these assets are stored. You finish one project and you open up another box filled with things you've never seen before."
Paul Hickman, office manager for the Internet Archive, said the group will house the digitized collection on its high-capacity redundant servers in San Francisco, Europe and Egypt. Presently, the group handles an estimated 5 petabytes of storage, but more capacity can be added. "Whatever they have, we'll have the capacity for it," he said.
The Internet Archive was selected by NASA for the project following a competitive process, he said.
The images and other data will likely be provided to the Internet Archive on hard drives so that it can be transferred to the group's archives for storage, Hickman said. Other materials, including printed documents, microfilm, books, computer presentations, audio files and VHS video, will be scanned or copied and then digitized for the online archive.
Initial plans for the project call for the Internet Archive to consolidate NASA's major image collections in the first year, with more to come the year after that. In the third year, NASA and the Internet Archive will identify analog imagery that needs to be digitized and added. The two partners will also work to build a system to automatically capture, catalog and store future material in the online archive.
The project will allow the space agency to more easily share and showcase its unique achievements, including remarkable photos from its Mars rover missions and from its manned and unmanned voyages to the Moon and beyond.
"Any opportunity that we have to allow the public to experience these missions, well, they're just incredible opportunities for us to do that," Jacobs said. "We have some of the most amazing imagery of anyone on the planet."