Episode 1 discusses NASA's plans to keep the Earth from being contaminated with lunar germs during the Apollo missions. Unfortunately, there were a few flaws in their plans that will make you chuckle. We'll also meet the first man to (accidentally) touch the moon and a young woman who got an unexpected shot of moon dust.
About the Episode Title:
The title for this episode came while doing online research for the book. It was posted on several of those online quote sites and credited to “anonymous.” The full quote was, “Moon dust in your lungs, stars in your eyes. You are a child of the cosmos, a ruler of the skies.”
Space Oddities Podcast
Episode: 01 Title: Moon Dust in Your Lungs, Stars in Your Eyes
Air Date: 04/24/2022
[Theme Music Up & Under]
Welcome to “Space Oddities: Forgotten Stories from Mankind’s Exploration of Space”. I’m Joe Cuhaj.
Episode 1: Moon Dust in Your Lungs, Stars in Your Eyes
[Music transitions into episode music, JFK speech]
Even before President John F. Kennedy set the goal to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade, virtually all scientists believed that the moon was completely devoid of life, not even the smallest of microbes could survive there.
But there was this one relatively unknown – at the time – upstart scientist who took a different view. His name was Carl Sagan who asked, what if there actually microorganisms on the moon? And what if astronauts brought rock samples back that contained the lunar creatures? What could they do to life here on Earth? The entire world could be in jeopardy…
A small group of scientists including Sagan urged NASA not to take chances and take necessary precautions to protect the planet from invaders from the moon.
[Clip from Magnetic Monster]
NASA decided to err on the safe side and began developing plans to protect the Apollo astronauts, the scientists who would be examining the moon rocks that would be returned to Earth, and to protect life here on Earth. Enter the Quarantine Trailer and Lunar Receiving Laboratory…
[NASA audio from film clip]
The Lunar Receiving Laboratory or LRL was a specially designed building that would isolate the Apollo astronauts and their rock samples from the outside world to prevent back-contamination of the Earth by any possible lunar microorganisms and to prevent contamination of the lunar samples with Earth organisms.
The LRL consisted of four major functional areas: the Radiation Counting Laboratory, the Administrative and Support Area, the Crew Reception Area, and Sample Operations Area. Those last two areas were sealed in a biological barrier. A complex vacuum system ensured that air could not escape from the facility to contaminate the Earth’s atmosphere while at the same time keeping Earth air from contaminating the pristine lunar samples.
Sounds like – and pardon the pun – an air-tight plan to protect the Earth from space invaders, right? Well, there were a few flaws.
[Audio of capsule being opened in Pacific]
As Apollo 11 astronauts Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin explained in an interview for the PBS series, American Experience, if there were moon germs, once Armstrong and Aldrin left the moon and returned to the command module for the return trip to Earth, the pressurized capsule would be immediately filled with these organisms.
After splashdown in the Pacific, navy rescue divers would secure a floatation ring around the capsule to prevent it from sinking then open the hatch which, presumably, would release the germs into the atmosphere.
The crew would then dress in special alien looking biological suits complete with huge respirators, full head cover, and full face shields then climb into a raft where the divers would take a rag and disinfectant and decontaminate the astronauts. When they’re done, the divers would tie a weight to the rag and throw it into the ocean to sink. Now the germs would be in the Pacific.
Despite these drawbacks in the plan, it went off without a hitch. The crew of Apollo 11 were lifted out of the raft and into a hovering helicopter where they were transported to the recovery ship, the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, which was temporarily renamed, “Hornet +3” in honor of its heroic passengers.
As soon as the rotors had stopped, the chopper was rolled to an elevator and lowered to the hangar deck where the astronauts headed off to their new home…
[Walter Cronkite report]
Once inside, the quarantine trailer was sealed off and the crew and assistants were shipped to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii then to Houston, Texas where Apollo 11’s precious cargo – astronauts and all - were carefully moved into their new home inside the LRL.
Sequestered behind the building’s biological barrier along with the astronauts was NASA photographer Terry Slezak. One of the photographer’s jobs was to remove film magazines that contained the hundreds of photos that Armstrong and Aldrin had taken on the moon from protective canisters.
As he started pulling the magazines from the containers, Slezak found a handwritten note from Aldrin that read, “This is the canister that Neil dropped on the surface but this is the most important magazine.”
Not fully realizing the meaning of the note, Slezak pulled the magazine from the canister – bare handed – and saw that it was covered in a thick black material. Then he noticed that the material was now on his hands. It was lunar dust. The photographer had inadvertently become the first man to physically touch the moon.
Slezak had to immediately strip down, clean the area with bleach, shower, then start his own quarantine period.
Besides the possibility of lunar microbes, a more serious problem with lunar dust was that it is like volcanic ash. It’s made up of sharp, glasslike particles that could cause severe even deadly respiratory issues if inhaled. But being the consummate professional, Slezak was more concerned with the film than his own health. Those particles stick to everything and get into every nook and cranny available. It could have scratched the film and made it unusable.
After 3 weeks, Slezak showed no signs of having a reaction to touching the dirt. Both the photographer and the film were ok.
With moonrocks in hand, scientists began examining the material, performing experiments which included subjecting a number of biological subjects to the Apollo lunar material.
They ground up moon rocks and mixed it into aquarium water that contained live fish to see if they had a reaction. They fed portions of the ground up material to cockroaches and insects…
They injected moon dust into plants, Japanese quail, shrimp, even oysters. Basically, the scientists were trying to verify the effects that any possible microbes from the lunar samples might have on a representative sampling of living species on Earth and avoid a worldwide plague.
They even performed one of the age old scientific experiments– inoculating a chicken egg with a sample.
By 1971, landing on the moon was old hat and the public had virtually lost interest. Front page banner headlines shouting the news of the exploits of our moon walkers were now relegated to the back pages. With all of the hoopla and precautions being taken to prevent any lunar germs from escaping and to protect scientists examining the lunar samples from contamination, it is surprising to find a short, 133 word article tucked away on page 52 of the New York Times on February 25th, 1971.
The headline read, “Woman Pricks Finger in Test of Moon Dust”.
22-year old Nancy Klein was running experiments with lunar dust. The dust was contained in a special hermetically sealed cabinet that had rubber gloves built into its side where researchers could reach inside to run experiments and examine the material without fear of contamination.
Mrs. Klein was inoculating chicken eggs with a syringe filled with moon dust. The needle slipped and penetrated not only her glove but also her finger making her the first person to be vaccinated with moon dust.
Following protocol, Mrs. Klein was placed into quarantine to make sure she did not become ill from the incident. Thankfully, moon dust, as researchers finally discovered, is relatively harmless. Nancy Klein was released from quarantine and soon after, the process of quarantining astronauts ended following the flight of Apollo 14.
[Theme music up & under]
I’m Joe Cuhaj and thank you for joining me for this episode of Space Oddities. You can read more fascinating, offbeat, and obscure space tales like these in my new book, aptly titled Space Oddities: Forgotten Stories of Mankind’s Exploration of Space, available at your favorite online or hometown bookstore.
If you liked this episode then tell a friend and be sure to like us on Facebook - visit https://www.facebook.com/SpaceOddityBook or drop me a line from my website, joe-cuhaj.com (that’s spelled CUHAJ). You can also learn more about my other books and upcoming appearances.
Special thanks this week to the NASA history office and CBS news for the clips heard in today’s episode.
Our theme music is called “Inspired” courtesy of BenSounds.Com. We’ll see you next time with more space tales.
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