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Scientific Side Issues: Security and Publication

With the return of the unique, expensive, and widely ballyhooed moon rocks, NASA and its scientific advisory bodies anticipated some potential problems that could embarrass both the space agency and the community of lunar scientists. One was the theft or unauthorized use of the samples; another was an unseemly scramble to publish results. To minimize the chances of such undesirable events, the contracts covering the scientific investigation of lunar material stipulated that the contracting institution would establish strict security and accounting procedures for the samples, and that the investigator would reserve initial presentation of all results for a symposium to be held as soon as possible after each mission.81 Both provisions violated established scientific practice to some extent, particularly the agreement to withhold publication; but in view of the unique significance of the lunar samples and the benefits to be gained by discussion at a lunar science symposium, scientists agreed to them.

Not surprisingly, since the samples were released before any of the samples were publicly displayed, requests for permission to display the research samples came in as soon as they were received.82 These were considered case by case at Headquarters and usually were approved.83 This undoubtedly contributed to the public-relations dividends NASA was accumulating from the first lunar landing.

To disseminate the results of the initial lunar investigations to the widest possible audience, NASA took the unusual step of entering into a contract with a single journal84: Science, published weekly by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and circulated in 120 countries. Science undertook to devote a single issue to the preliminary results of the Apollo 11 research and to conduct all the normal work of reviewing and editing the manuscripts on an unusually tight schedule; NASA would cover any excess costs entailed by this accelerated process.85

A week after the samples were released, the lunar sample preliminary examination team published the results of its work - the only results of the first lunar landing to appear in the scientific literature before the symposium scheduled for early January 1970. Inasmuch as preliminary examination was not intended to produce answers to the important scientific questions about the moon, the paper was mostly confined to descriptions of the lunar material and the procedures followed in the lunar receiving laboratory.86

Nonetheless, this early work had produced data that permitted drawing some tentative conclusions. Two generic groups of samples could be distinguished: fine- and medium-grained crystalline rocks of igneous origin, which were probably originally deposited as lava flows, and breccias (heterogeneous crystalline rocks compacted from smaller particles without extensive alteration) of complex history. There was no water at the Tranquility site and probably never had been any since the samples were exposed. Neither was there any significant amount of organic material (considerably less than one part per million), which might have indicated something about life on the moon. The rocks and dust were chemically similar to each other and contained the same chemical elements as igneous rocks on earth. But in their mineral content the igneous rocks were different from terrestrial rocks and meteorites. Evidence was found that the lunar material had been chemically fractionated, some volatile elements being depleted and some refractory (high-melting) elements enriched. One of the more striking conclusions of the preliminary examination was that the igneous rocks on the moon had crystallized between three and four billion years ago - as old as any found on earth, perhaps even older, given the uncertainty in the measurements. Furthermore, the samples collected at Tranquility Base had been within 1 meter (39 inches) of the surface for 20 to 160 million years. Many of the rocks and fines showed signs of having been subjected to severe shock, such as might result from the impact of meteorites. The rounded, eroded surfaces found on many of the rocks suggested continuous bombardment by micrometeorites. Glass-lined surface pits suggested the same thing.87

Interest in the moon rocks tended to overshadow the results of the surface experiments that the astronauts had left behind. The passive seismometer had recorded the footsteps of the lunar explorers as soon as it was activated, and ground-based scientists noted a response when Armstrong and Aldrin tossed out excess equipment before departing. Two fairly large seismic events in the first week of operation excited geophysicists at first, but when they were not repeated the scientists concluded that they could have been false signals originating in the instrument itself. Even so, the very lack of seismic activity was indicative that the moon's interior was not like the earth's.88 The other instrument, the laser retroreflector, was difficult to locate from earth because it was in strong sunlight, which made detection of the reflected light pulse difficult. Only after lunar sunset would astronomers be able to use the instrument in the manner for which it had been designed.89

Sketchy as these results were, they clearly showed that Apollo would revolutionize scientific thought about the moon and its relation to the earth. The detailed studies would show how extensive this revolution might be. [see Chapter 14] 90

81. Paine to Gilruth, Sept. 8, 1969. Some investigators did not conform to the ban. In November, a scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey wrote indignantly to MSC's director of science and applications, enclosing clippings that indicated some findings had been released prematurely and outside of normal scientific channels. According to one, Harold Urey had stated in a talk in San Diego that the Apollo 11 samples had been found to be 4.6 billion years old, which supported his theory of the moon's origin. G. Brent Dalrymple to Anthony J. Calio, Nov. 13, 1969, with encl., copy of article, "Moon Rocks' Age Is Now Firmly Fixed," San Francisco Chronicle, Nov. 8, 1969.

82. E. F. Bartell (Cornell Univ.), TWX to Space Sciences Procurement Branch, MSC, Sept. 16, 1969.

83. William L. Green, TWX to MSC, attn. Brian Duff, Oct. 3, 1969.

84. Donald U. Wise, TWX to MSC, attn. Dr. W. Hess, Aug. 11, 1969.

85. Philip H. Abelson, "The Moon Issue," Science 167 (1969):447.

86. The Lunar Sample Preliminary Examination Team, "Preliminary Examination of Lunar Samples from Apollo 11," Science 165 (1969):1211-27.

87. Ibid., p. 1226.

88. Cohn, "Seismometer on Moon Registers Disturbance," Washington Post, July 23, 1969, "Moon Tremor Recorded by Apollo Device," ibid., July 24, 1969.

89. Idem, "Moon Tremor Recorded."

90. Idem, "Old Moon Game Taunts Players."

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