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Scientific Work Begins

The first sample container arrived in Houston late in the morning on July 25 and was delivered to the receiving laboratory shortly before noon.44 The second arrived from Hawaii that afternoon.45 For the next few weeks the laboratory was the center of more public attention, probably, than had been focused on any scientific installation in this century. As they had done since the Ranger project and would continue to do throughout the space science program, reporters pressed the scientists for interpretations of their preliminary observations. Obviously any scientific conclusions would have to await detailed study; nonetheless, the scientists answered the journalists as best they could. One was reported to have characterized the result as "instant science," noting that "We have to look at the stuff and then walk into a news conference, where we should be fairly conservative and reserved . . . and we talk off the top of our heads, and we're bound to goof some."46

After initial inspection the sealed sample return container was transferred to the vacuum laboratory and weighed (33 pounds, 6 ounces; 15.14 kilograms). Film magazines were placed in an autoclave, to be exposed to a gaseous sterilant for several hours before being sent to the photographic laboratory for processing.47

Technicians in the vacuum laboratory then started the container through the process of preliminary examination. Before admitting it to the vacuum system, they passed it through a two-step sterilization, first with ultraviolet light, then with peracetic acid (a liquid biocide), after which it was rinsed with sterile water and dried under nitrogen. Next it was passed through a vacuum lock into the main vacuum chamber. Opening the box was delayed for some hours when the pressure in the vacuum system could not be stabilized. Operators suspected a leak in one of the gloves through which the samples were handled, which was torn in several places.48

By midafternoon the next day, however, the leak had not worsened and the scientists decided to proceed. At 3:45 p.m. on July 26, as geologists crowded around the observation port at the work station, the cover was removed from the sample return container.49 The first glimpse of moon rocks was frustrating because they were covered with fine dust that obscured their surface characteristics. About all that visual observation revealed was that they were irregular in shape and angular, with slightly rounded edges.50 In addition to the rocks and dust, the sample return container held a solar-wind collector* and two core tubes, with which Aldrin had obtained subsurface samples. These had been least exposed to contaminants from earth and would provide the "bioprime" sample, a 100-gram (3.5-ounce) portion of lunar soil that would be tested for its effects on a variety of living organisms. Core tubes and solar-wind collector were sealed in stainless-steel cans, sterilized, and transferred out of the vacuum laboratory.51

The following week more preliminary data trickled out of the receiving laboratory as two teams of scientists (the lunar sample preliminary examination team, or "LSPET," and the lunar sample analysis planning team, or "LSAPT") got down to work. These groups would examine, characterize, photograph, and catalog the specimens and allocate samples to the 142 principal investigators. Working two shifts a day for a while, they determined how the larger rocks would be divided and which ones should be sectioned, basing their judgment on the requirements of the investigators and the availability of the different types of samples. While many members of these teams were later involved in specific investigations, their purpose at this stage was to match samples with research projects to make most effective use of the samples.52

On July 27 technicians removed a rock from the box for low-level radiation counting, dislodging much of the dust from its surface. Geologists immediately classified the specimen as igneous (formed by melting).53 It might be a fragment of lava from a lunar volcanic flow or a rock produced by localized melting, such as might result from a large meteorite crashing into the moon. Careful visual examination disclosed numerous small pits on the surface, as Armstrong had noted during his excursion. The scientists tentatively identified three common minerals, feldspar, pyroxene, and olivine, as the major constituents of the samp1e.54

Spectrographic analysis of a pinch of lunar dust indicated that the surface material from Tranquility Base was much like that analyzed two years earlier by Surveyor V.** Noteworthy characteristics of the sample included an abnormally high proportion of titanium and relatively small quantities of some volatile elements, which would be depleted in materials aggregated at high temperatures. Microscopic examination of the powdery material ("fines") showed that more than half of it was composed of tiny particles of glass - shiny spheres, rare dumbbell-shaped beads, and sharp, angular needles and fragments.55

A few more tidbits emerged from the early work in the receiving laboratory, among them the facts that the samples contained very little carbon (no more than 12 parts per million) and that some of the rocks had lain undisturbed on the lunar surface for a million years or more.56

Preliminary examination of samples and preparation of material for the investigators continued throughout August, aiming at distribution of experimental material as soon as the quarantine protocols were completed. For the first few days work in the laboratory went on as planned; some minor malfunctions in the waste disposal system briefly threatened to break the biological containment but were corrected without incident.57 About the only potential equipment problem was the torn glove in the vacuum chamber. Since replacement was a time-consuming process, technicians jury-rigged a repair by slipping another glove over the damaged one and taping the two together.58 But before the first week was out the gloves ruptured, exposing most of the samples in the system to the atmosphere and sending two technicians into quarantine.59 Work in the vacuum laboratory was suspended while scientists and laboratory managers decided what to do. Problems with the vacuum system had been experienced during premission simulations [see Chapter 8] and provision had been made to fill the chamber with sterile nitrogen gas; that alternative was now adopted.60

* This was a sheet of aluminum foil that was set out at the start of the astronauts' lunar surface activity to trap particles of the solar wind. Dr. Johannes Geiss of the University of Berne, Switzerland, devised the experiment, which went on every mission; crews called it "the Swiss flag" because it was unfurled along with the Stars and Stripes.

** The inactive Surveyor V sat some 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) north-northwest of Tranquility Base. The last three Surveyors (V, VI, VII) carried instruments capable of identifying the major chemical elements making up the surface material,; see Surveyor: Program Results, NASA SP-184 (Washington, 1969), pp. v- vi, 7, 271-350.

44. "Apollo 11 Mission Report," pp. 13-3 to 13-5; Kenneth L. Suit, "LRL Apollo 11 Daily Summary Report (1200 July 24 to 1200 July 25)," July 25, 1969.

45. Suit, "Apollo 11 LRL Daily Summary Report, 1200 July 25 to 1200 July 26."

46. Victor Cohn, "Old Moon Game Taunts Players," Washington Post, Sept. 21, 1969.

47. MSC, "LRL Daily Summary Report No. 3," July 26, 1969.

48. Suit, "Apollo 11 LRL Daily Summary Report, 1200 July 25 to 1200 July 26."

49. [Suit], "Apollo 11 LTD Daily Summary Report, 1200 July 26 to 1200 July 27"; Richard S. Johnston, "LRL Daily Summary Report No. 4," July 27, 1969.

50. Cohn, "Old Moon Game"; "Scientists Get First Look at Moon Rocks," Washington Sunday Star, July 27, 1969.

51. Johnston, "LRL Daily Summary Report No. 4."

52. Lunar Sample Preliminary Examination Team, "Preliminary Examination of Lunar Samples from Apollo 11," Science 165 (1969): 1211-17 (19 Sept. 1969).

53. Johnston, "LRL Daily Summary Report No. 4"; Cohn, "Old Moon Game."

54. Lunar Sample Analysis Planning Team, "Sample Information Summary #1," July 29, 1969, "Sample Information Summary #2," July 31, 1969.

55. "Sample Information Summary #1."

56. "LRL Summary Report No. 7," July 31, 1969.

57. "LRL Summary Report No. 8," Aug. 1, 1969.

58. Ibid.

59. "LRL Summary Report No. 9," Aug. 2, 1969; "Sample Information Summary #3," Aug. 2, 1969.

60. Ibid.; Johnston, "Lunar Receiving Laboratory Sample Flow Directive, Revision A," MSC-00002, July 1, 1969, p. 6.

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