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Astonishing AI restoration brings Apollo moon landing films up to speed

NASA astronaut Charles Duke filmed Commander John Young as Young drove the Lunar Roving Vehicle, in footage shot on April 21, 1972 during the fifth day of the Apollo 16 moon landing.
NASA astronaut Charles Duke filmed Commander John Young as Young drove the Lunar Roving Vehicle, in footage shot on April 21, 1972 during the fifth day of the Apollo 16 moon landing.
(Image: © NASA/DutchSteamMachine)

Astronauts on NASA's Apollo missions to the moon captured astounding movies of the lunar surface, but recent enhancements with artificial intelligence (AI) have really made the films out of this world. 

In remastered movies shared online by by DutchSteamMachine, a YouTube channel run by a film restoration specialist in the Netherlands, details from lunar scenes are astonishingly crisp and vivid; from mission commander Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon in 1969 to bumpy lunar rover drives during Apollo 15 and 16 in 1971 and 1972, respectively.

The film restorer behind DutchSteamMachine, who also goes by "Niels," used AI to stabilize shaky footage and generate new frames in NASA moon landing films; increasing the frame rate (the number of frames that play per second) smoothed the motion and made it look more like movement in high-definition (HD) video.

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The Apollo program launched 11 lunar spaceflight missions between 1968 and 1972; of those, four missions tested equipment and six landed on the moon, allowing 12 men to walk, drive and/or leap over the dusty, cratered lunar surface, according to NASA. During all of those missions, astronauts captured details of orbits, activities or experiments using 16-millimeter motion picture cameras that were usually advancing the film at 1, 6, or 12 frames per second, or fps — the film industry's standard rate is 24 fps, and HD video cameras shoot 30 or 60 fps.

When old films shot at a lower frame rate are displayed at higher rates, the motion appears sped-up and jittery, "which creates a disconnect between the past and the person watching it," Niels told Live Science in an email.

"I use an open-source artificial intelligence that has been 'trained' with example footage to generate entirely new frames between real ones," Niels said. "It analyzes the difference between real frames, what changed, and is able to 'interpolate' what kind of data would be there if it was shot at a higher frame rate." The AI is called Depth-Aware video frame INterpolation (DAIN), and is a free, downloadable app for Windows that is "currently in alpha and development," according to DAIN's website.

Experts have been remastering old films for decades, but the recent addition of AI has taken results to a new level, Niels said.

"Most remastering/enhancing of old footage has been the removal of dirt and scratches, stabilizing shaky camera work, sometimes even adding color. But never generating entirely new frames based on data from two consecutive real frames," he explained.

One of the biggest challenges of creating these restorations is finding high-quality source footage; grit, particles and excessive graininess in the film can confuse the algorithm and interfere with AI's interpolation process, Niels said. NASA footage is especially rewarding for AI upgrades because the original frame rate is so low — 6 to 12 fps — that upping it to 24, 50 or 60 fps makes a very dramatic difference. And because movement in the films is so slow, the algorithm can generate more interpolating frames without digital artifacts.

Niels hopes that his videos will bring the moonwalks just a little bit closer to Earthbound viewers, and help them to see and appreciate these landmark events as the astronauts did. He also hopes the remastered footage will inspire more interest in space agencies' upcoming plans for launching crewed missions that fly beyond low-Earth orbit — and even return to the lunar surface — while equipped with cameras capable of shooting in HD. 

"Footage actually taken with high-quality video cameras is going to be absolutely stunning," Niels told Live Science. 

You can watch all of his AI-enhanced moon landing videos on the DutchSteamMachine YouTube channel, and you can find more of his projects on Patreon.

Originally published on Live Science.

  • CParsons
    I'm not really a huge fan of some of the AI restoration videos that are out there (colorization of old film, Tom & Jerry in 60fps) but this is actually pretty awesome.
    Reply
  • ThinkTank
    I think AI is the most important system homosapiens have ever created. It's up to our generation to make sure it is used in the correct way. Of course history will teach us a very important lesson. Some 1 is gonna tamper with it and make it regrettable. We need strict laws on this matter early on before we find out all the wicked things AI can do. Other than that I think it's awesome. I remember when I was a kid and the first Nintendo came out. I was blown away. Before the Nintendo I was on Atari and a commador computer. I was just a kid when I thought virtual reality would never happen in my life time and look at us now. Just amazing. I think the human race is amazing and I'm thankful we have some really smart people.
    Reply
  • Shovelhead
    CParsons said:
    I'm not really a huge fan of some of the AI restoration videos that are out there (colorization of old film, Tom & Jerry in 60fps) but this is actually pretty awesome.
    Since you've drawn the comparison, I must tell you that these Apollo videos and the infamous Tom and Jerry clip were made using the same software, by two members of the same online community. Most of us are just messing around with some cool tech we stumbled across and Niels happened to have a better idea of what to do with it than most of us. We've all had a good laugh about the reactions to our Tom and Jerry clip.
    Reply
  • CParsons
    Shovelhead said:
    Since you've drawn the comparison, I must tell you that these Apollo videos and the infamous Tom and Jerry clip were made using the same software, by two members of the same online community. Most of us are just messing around with some cool tech we stumbled across and Niels happened to have a better idea of what to do with it than most of us. We've all had a good laugh about the reactions to our Tom and Jerry clip.

    Oh yeah, I know. I'm all for the messing around with it to see what it can do.
    Reply
  • davidsmith
    The original footage for most of these videos is 16 mm film, which has a resolution easily high enough to earn the "HD" moniker. What was missing is the frame rate: the camera had a selectable frame rate (down to 1 fps), and lower framerates were used extensively to reduce the amount of film required.
    So most of the restoration consists of frame interpolation and camera motion smoothing.
    Reply
  • ThinkTank
    Makes sense considering astronauts could only bring so much stuff with them to space.
    Reply