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Early Plans for Lunar Sample Management

Preliminary definitions of the lunar science program noted the importance of laboratory studies on returned lunar material, but offered no suggestions as to how samples should be collected and handled.1 Neither within nor outside NASA did anyone give serious thought to the details of preserving lunar samples in near-pristine condition until late 1963. Elbert A. King, Jr., and Donald A. Flory, two geoscientists who joined MSC's Space Environment Division that year, were among the first to propose action to protect valuable scientific information that could be lost unless the lunar samples were handled under carefully controlled conditions.

In February 1964 King and Flory put together a concept of a sample receiving laboratory and forwarded it to Max Faget, director of engineering and development at the Manned Spacecraft Center. Their plan called for a small (100 square feet, 9.5 square meters) laboratory in which sample containers could be opened and their contents repackaged under high vacuum (one ten-millionth of atmospheric pressure) for distribution to the scientists who would conduct most of the studies. Remotely controlled manipulators would be used to carry out operations within the chamber, which would be sterile, chemically clean, and used for no other purpose.2

Faget recognized the importance of the proposed facility to the lunar science program and encouraged King and Flory to expand their concept. The second version of the "sample transfer facility" was considerably larger and more sophisticated. A 2,500-square-foot (232-square-meter) clean room contained several analytical instruments for performing preliminary tests on the samples. Within this area was a high-vacuum system containing remote manipulators and a separate sterile laboratory for biological testing. The vacuum chamber was equipped to prepare mineralogical and petrological specimens as well as divide and repackage the samples. The atmosphere in the entire area would be closely monitored so that subsequent investigators would know what contaminants might be present in their samples.3

These preliminary studies received considerable support in June 1964 when the Apollo science planning teams [see Chapter 3] met at Houston. Both the geochemistry and mineralogy-petrology teams emphasized the importance of controlling the environment in which the sample containers were first opened and the need for extensive preliminary examination of the samples at the receiving site.4 After discussions with members of these teams, King and Flory reworked their proposal and described an elaborate lunar sample laboratory. Projected at more than 8,000 square feet (740 square meters) of floor space, their third concept included offices for 30 visiting scientists as well as laboratories for chemical analysis, low-level short-lived radioactivity measurements, biological examination, and mineralogical and petrological preparations. This facility was not a mere sample-receiving and -packaging laboratory, but the center for much of the preliminary scientific work that would be done on the lunar samples.5 They presented this concept to MSC's director, Bob Gilruth, on August 13. Gilruth approved, and Faget set about preparing to contract for design studies for it.6

MSC's plans required Headquarters approval and funding, and when Faget explained the project Willis Foster's Manned Space Science Division reacted cautiously, to say the least. While agreeing in general terms with the concept, Foster noted that it was a Headquarters responsibility and that the laboratory would be only a "receiving laboratory." The detailed preliminary studies Houston was proposing should be left to outside investigators. In response to Faget's request for $300,000 to conduct the design study, Foster replied that he could allot only $100,000.7 In view of the alarm with which some of his people viewed the size of the project MSC was proposing, Foster appointed an ad hoc group of Headquarters and MSC scientists to review it.8

The group's first meeting in early November was, from Houston's point of view, disappointing. Few of the participants had given much thought to the requirements for a receiving laboratory, and the discussion was long and inconclusive. The group's chairman seemed determined to keep the size and cost of the proposed lab to the absolute minimum. Most members seemed to feel that a facility such as MSC was proposing would take much of the lunar science program out of the hands of academic investigators. In spite of MSC's insistence that time was short, the group adjourned without taking any useful action.9 But the second meeting, a month later, produced enough progress that MSC's representative felt Houston could go ahead with initial engineering studies.10

While Foster's ad hoc group ruminated on the need for a receiving laboratory, Homer Newell - probably sensing that it would entail a considerable increase in the costs of lunar exploration - felt that an independent assessment by the scientific community was needed. Early in December he mote to Harry H. Hess, chairman of the Space Science Board, requesting the board's judgment on the kinds of analysis that should be performed on the lunar samples as soon as they were returned, the facilities needed to do that work, and the staffing that would be required.11 A five-man committee - three members of the Space Science Board and two academic scientists - met in Washington on January 14, 1965, to discuss Newell's questions and to confer with members of the ad hoc group.

Three weeks later Hess reported to Newell that a sample receiving laboratory having a relatively restricted mission was indeed needed. The only critical examination was measurement of radioactivity induced in the lunar surface material by cosmic-ray bombardment, which would have to be measured as soon as possible because it quickly dropped to a very low level. The committee raised a question that Newell had not put to it: its members foresaw a need to quarantine the lunar samples until they proved biologically innocuous. A simple, general biological examination could be done at some existing Public Health Service or Army installation. Without specific information or plans to comment on, the committee could give only rough estimates of staffing requirements and probable costs. A minimal quarantine facility with a radiation-counting laboratory might be built for $2.5 million; it would require between 12 and 30 professional scientists plus a supporting staff.12

Hess's committee emphatically asserted that the studies MSC was proposing should not be done in the receiving laboratory - or, for that matter, by any single group, inside or outside government - but should be entrusted to the scientific community at large. Neither did they see a compelling need to locate the laboratory at Houston, although "it may seem desirable that MSC have a part in the activity by virtue of its Apollo role," If the Houston center could properly staff such a laboratory, however, it might "add to the overall environment at MSC." On the other hand, since the radiation-counting laboratory would have to be built deep underground to shield it from natural radiation, the waterlogged soil of the Texas coast might make construction more expensive there, and thus some other site might be preferable. The committee also cautioned that such a laboratory would have to operate continuously to conduct worthwhile research; it could not be geared up to operate whenever a new set of samples was available and then shut down until another lunar mission was flown,13 which, they evidently suspected, was the way MSC was likely to operate the laboratory in light of its minimal scientific capability.

Manned Spacecraft Center officials, meanwhile, were anxious to get their preliminary engineering studies under way. Preliminary studies, design studies, contractor selection, and contract negotiations had to be disposed of as quickly as possible. Cost estimates and justifications had to be prepared for inclusion in the center's budget proposals for fiscal 1967, when construction would have to start. According to early 1965 estimates, the laboratory would have to be operational by January 1969 to support the first lunar mission. Many critical and complex operations in the laboratory would have to be checked out beforehand, and managers estimated that a 9- to 12-month shakedown would be needed.14

The sense of urgency felt at MSC was not shared in Washington, however Faget wrote to Foster in mid-January 1965 urging hint to release funds for preliminary engineering studies for the laboratory and suggesting that Headquarters' ad hoc committee be replaced by a standing committee to oversee the incorporation of scientific requirements into the laboratory during construction. A month later Foster replied that study funds could not be released until the ad hoc committee made its report. He concurred with Faget's desire for a standing committee and urged him to appoint one of his staff to it, pointing to the value of "a greater understanding by MSC of the scientific objectives of the laboratory," which would enhance Houston's chances of getting the facility. "Other NASA centers," Foster said, "are submitting 'bids' for the laboratory."15

For the next several weeks, MSC and Headquarters discussed management of the laboratory, finally reaching an understanding as to future activity on the project. Foster would appoint a standing committee that would be given free access to design reviews and relevant program materials, so that Headquarters could be assured that the science requirements levied on the laboratory were being met. At Faget's insistence, however, the committee would have no right to approve plans; their advice would be made available through the committee chairman to MSC's point of contact for the receiving laboratory. Except for the specialized radiation-counting equipment, the cost of the laboratory would be included in MSC's construction of facilities budget for fiscal 1967.16 Some discrepancy still existed between Headquarters's and Houston's cost estimates. Foster's office seemed be thinking of a $1- to $2-million facility; the figure included in MSC's preliminary 1967 budget was $6.5 million.17

1. National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council, A Review of Space Research, report of the summer study conducted under the auspices of the Space Science Board of the National Academy of Sciences, NAS-NRC Publication 1079 (Washington, 1962), pp. 4-7, 4-33.

2. John M. Eggleston to M. A. Faget, "Initial Handling of Geological and Biological Samples Returned from the Apollo Missions," Feb. 24, 1964.

3. Aleck C. Bond to Chief, Off. of Technical and Engineering Services, "Sample Transfer Facility," with encl., "Functional Description and Tentative Performance Requirements," Apr. 14, 1964.

4. OSSA, "Apollo Lunar Science Program, Report of Planning Teams," part II, Appendix: sec. In, "Preliminary Report on the Sampling and Examination of Lunar Surface Materials," pp. 8-9; sec. IV, "First Report - Geochemistry Planning Team," pp. 8-13.

5. E. A. King and D. A. Flory to Asst. Dir. for Engineering and Development, "Requirements for a Facility to Receive and Accomplish Initial Lunar Sample Investigation at MSC," July 7, 1964.

6. Faget to Willis B. Foster, "Apollo Sample Handling Facility" (draft) , Aug. 26, 1964.

7. Foster to Eggleston, "Proposal for Cataloging of Lunar Samples by Elbert A. King and Donald A. Flory," Aug. 17, 1964; Foster to Faget, "Requirement for Laboratory Facilities for Receiving, Unpacking and Preliminary Examination of Lunar Samples," Aug. 17, 1964.

8. Foster to Eggleston, "Lunar Sample Receiving Laboratory," Oct. 23, 1964.

9. James C. McLane, Jr., to Mgr., Systems Tests and Evaluation, "Lunar Sample Receiving Laboratory," Nov. 13, 1964.

10. McLane to Mgr., System Tests and Evaluation, "Lunar Sample Receiving Laboratory," Dec. 18, 1964.

11. Homer E. Newell to Harry H. Hess, Dec. 8, 1964.

12. Hess to Newell, with encl., "Report of Ad Hoc Committee on Lunar Sample Handling Facility," Feb. 2, 1965.

13. Ibid.

14. McLane to Chief, Facilities Div., "FY 67 C of F Program," with encl., "Lunar Sample Receiving Laboratory Project Description and Project Justification," Jan. 20, 1965.

15. Foster to Faget, "Lunar Sample Receiving Laboratory," Feb. 24, 1965.

16. Faget to Foster, "MSC Lunar Sample Receiving Laboratory," Mar. 22, 1965.

17. Q. G. Robb to Chief, Test Facilities Branch, "Background Material on the Lunar Sample Facility," Apr. 6, 1965.

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