Thursday marks National Intern Day in the United States, so, I assume you have big things planned for your interns: maybe a cake, some presents, even a team outing or a surprise announcement that everyone is free to take the afternoon off.

Just in case you're caught by surprise however, we have something even better to share: the story of perhaps the luckiest intern ever -- an intern who picked up something very valuable without realizing it--and then carried it with him for decades as he moved around the country.

For Gary George, who interned at NASA when he was studying engineering at Lamar University in Texas long ago, that kind of packrattedness ultimately paid off big time--to the tune of almost $2 million in a single day. Here's the story. 

'Apollo 11 EVA'

George had a side hustle while he worked at NASA. He'd buy things from government auctions and resell them. One day in 1973, he bought a truck full of used raw video tape from government agencies.

He realized that he could sell it at a big markup to local television stations, which recorded over old tape in order save video of their programs.

George paid about $218 for more than 1,150 videotapes (about $981 today). He then sold eight of the tapes for $400, and planned to donate the rest to a church for the tax write-off.

"I had no idea there was anything of value on them," George said in an interview with Reuters. But his father noticed that three of the remaining video tape boxes had similar notations on them: "Apollo 11 EVA"

Of course, that referred to the moon landing, and the NASA abbreviation for "extra-vehicular activity."

They were dated July 20, 1969. His father was "really into the space program," George recalled. "He said, 'I think I'd hang onto those. They might be valuable someday.'"

'Damn, I have those...'

With no way to watch the videos--George didn't have the proper equipment--he simply held onto them for decades, taking them every place he moved during his career as a mechanical engineer. (He's now retired and living in Las Vegas.)

Then, two things happened.

First, in 2006, NASA admitted that it could not find its original recordings of the 1969 moon landing.

Second, in 2008, George said he happened to be on vacation with a friend who was a NASA employee, and who was part of the team trying to find the old moon landing videos.

"Quite frankly, I was sitting at the table drinking a beer and I said, 'Well, damn, I have those,'" George told Reuters.

Eventually, he opened negotiations with NASA over the videos he'd bought fair and square, back when he was an intern. He finally got to watch them, too, after flying to a studio in California that had the right vintage equipment.

Sure enough, he learned, he'd unwittingly held onto the oldest and best-quality recordings of the moon landing.

'Unrestored, unenhanced, and unremastered'

The videos have only been watched three times since they were originally recorded in 1969: first, when George watched them in California, and next, when he had contents of the videos copied and digitized.

The third time: When officials at the Sotheby's auction house viewed them recently to verify what was on them.

Oh that's right, Sotheby's--which offered them for sale as "the best surviving NASA videotape recordings" from Apollo 11: 

Viewed only three times since June 1976, the three reels of 2-inch Quadruplex videotape transport viewers to the big screen monitor at Mission Control, with images clearer and with better contrast than those that the more than half-billion-person television audience witnessed that momentous July day on their home sets.

Unrestored, unenhanced and unremastered, the significance of the videotapes was recognized during NASA's fruitless search at the time of the 40th anniversary of the lunar landing for its original SSTV recordings.

They sold last Saturday (the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing) for the cool price of $1.82 million (plus Sotheby's commission).

It's not known who the winning bidder was. The winning intern, however, is pretty clear.

The moral of the story is clear, too: Time to clean out those boxes in the attic. 

Published on: Jul 24, 2019
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