Twenty-five years ago, rocks from the Moon were delivered to a laboratory in Houston that was a marked contrast to the methodical, almost serene laboratory in which the Moon rocks are curated today. In July 1969, action in the Lunar Receiving Laboratory was intense. Technicians working in the gloved-cabinets had scientists excitedly looking over their shoulders for a first glimpse of the rocks from the Moon. The scientists had the media eagerly awaiting some pronouncement about the appearance and composition of the samples.
Elbert A. King, the first Lunar Sample Curator, reported "The moment was truly history, but there was little we could observe or say. We counted the rocks and described the size and shape of each piece, but they looked like lumps of charcoal in the bottom of a backyard barbecue grill. The pervasive dark lunar dust obscured everything for the time being." (King, 1989).
Even reporting the results of chemical analysis was hurried. S. Ross Taylor recalls getting lunar samples about noon on July 29th knowing that he would have to produce the results of a good chemical analysis by emission spectroscopy for a press conference at 4:00 p.m. He carried out this analytical work behind the biological barrier, working the sample inside of a nitrogen cabinet. Adding to the tension was the surprise discovery of 5000 ppm Cr in the Apollo 11 sample which obscured the primary calibration lines, so other lines had to be hastily substituted.
As part of advanced preparations in 1964, Elbert King and Donald A. Flory proposed a concept for a small 10-square-meter sample receiving laboratory in which sample containers could be opened and their contents repackaged under high vacuum for distribution to scientists. Remotely controlled manipulators would be used in the sterile and chemically clean vacuum chamber. Encouraged, King and Flory expanded their idea in a second version, called a "sample transfer facility." In addition to the vacuum sample-handling chamber, a clean room with several analytical instruments for performing preliminary analyses on the samples was proposed to enable wise distribution of the samples (Compton, 1989). The plan continued to be embellished, incorporating measurement of short-lived radioactivity in samples and mass spectroscopic analysis of sample and container gases. Debate about the need for, and scope of, a lunar sample receiving facility uncovered a concern among science advisory groups that a greatly enhanced receiving and analytical facility would take much of the lunar science program out of the hands of a broad community of academic investigators. Some scientists desired a facility functioning merely to pass samples on to investigators and not to store samples. In 1965 a committee of the Space Science Board reviewed the need for a lunar sample receiving laboratory and recommended a laboratory of restricted scope. This committee also raised the question of quarantine for lunar samples until they proved to be biologically harmless.
"But as plans for managing the samples developed, NASA came under pressure from space biologists and the U.S. Public Health Service to protect earth against the introduction of alien microorganisms that might exist in lunar soil. What would have been a small laboratory designed to protect lunar samples against contamination grew into an elaborate, expensive quarantine facility that greatly complicated operations on the early lunar landing missions." (Compton, 1989).
The $7.8 million Lunar Receiving Laboratory comprised 8,000 m2 of lunar receiving laboratory, biological facilities, crew isolation area, gas analysis laboratory and radiation-counting laboratory. It is a tribute to the focus of the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC, precursor name of Johnson Space Center) management that the building construction was completed in 1967, within one year after approval to start. During 1967 MSC management was struggling to recover from the Apollo capsule fire, that had killed three astronauts on the ground, and fly the first of 14 Apollo spacecraft.
Dr. P. R. Bell, from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, designed the LRL vacuum system and was selected Director of the LRL. Under him engineers and technicians labored mightily to install and checkout the sophisticated sample-handling vacuum system before the samples arrived.
The Lunar Receiving Laboratory had 4 stated functions: 1) distribution of samples to the scientific community, 2) perform time-critical sample measurements, 3) permanently store under vacuum a portion of each sample, and 4) quarantine testing of samples, spacecraft and astronauts (McLane et al., 1967). In contrast, today the purpose of curation of extraterrestrial materials at Johnson Space Center is to 1) keep the samples pure, 2) preserve accurate historical information about the samples, 3) examine and classify samples, 4) publish information about newly-available samples, and 5) prepare and distribute samples for research and education ( Office of the Curator, 1992).
As the LRL took shape, NASA had been encouraged to recruit members of the outside science community to participate in the oversight of the lab and in the preliminary examination of the samples. The expertise of many outsiders working on the Lunar Sample Analysis Planning Team (LSAPT) and the Preliminary Examination Team (PET) was crucial to making the sample processing and distribution operation work properly.
Scientists and technicians entering the laboratory had to strip off their clothes and put on lab clothing. Persons leaving had to strip off the lab clothes, shower, walk nude through a lock bathed in ultraviolet (UV) light and then they could put on their street clothes. Not many of the planetary scientists, astronauts or technicians took the quarantine seriously, figuring that the Moon already had a sterilization system of its own which included irradiation with UV. The quarantine experience was fertile ground for anecdotes, however—like the various versions of a local myth that a quarantine expert from Fort Dietrich suggested using anthrax to test the effectiveness of the biological barrier. According to Elbert King someone did propose testing the barrier with Q-fever, a plan that had to be argued against in a managers' meeting.
When the rocks arrived, the sealed boxes were placed into the vacuum system known as the F-201. A technician working in spacesuit vacuum gloves manipulated the samples. The samples were observed and photographed in vacuum. Pieces of sample for examination or analysis were passed into cabinet lines containing nitrogen at 1 atmosphere. Working under separate management, the quarantine people fed lunar fines to mice, quail and other life forms, watching for signs of ill effects and marveling that plants grew better in lunar soil than quartz sand. Planetary scientists were unhappy about the amount of material which they viewed as wasted on these experiments and the extent to which quarantine diminished the focus on planetary research.
Meanwhile, PET worked behind the barrier to describe and analyze the samples in a cursory fashion so that the LSAPT could allocate samples wisely to Principal Investigators (PIs). LSAPT had responsibility for overseeing the scientific integrity of the samples and authorizing the preliminary examinations performed on the samples. At the beginning of the first mission, LSAPT members weren't even allowed into the LRL. Some PET members likened LSAPT to military Generals sitting in the chateau issuing orders to the PET troops in the trenches and being unappreciative of the difficulties of working very long hours in the frustrating environment of the quarantine.
Prior to Apollo 11 LSAPT had inspected the laboratory and advised high level management of problems. However, during the original processing of Apollo 11 samples, when LSAPT was permitted in the lab and saw first-hand the effects of quarantine protocols, the working of an imperfect vacuum system and the lack of attention to potential contamination of the samples by trace elements, they saw immediate need for changes in LRL operations. Some changes were more easily made. Robert M. Walker hurriedly solicited the manufacture of clean plastic vials in St. Louis. Gerald J. Wasserburg, one of the very few who had experience working with rocks in clean rooms, fabricated stainless steel tools and containers in his laboratory. He bought stainless steel benches from butcher and food supply houses and had them air-freighted to Houston.
Other changes were not made so easily. After the Apollo 11 samples were returned and observed not to react with dry nitrogen, a consensus developed among LSAPT that handling the samples in nitrogen would be better than continuing with the vacuum system. Working in vacuum was extremely difficult. A rupture of the vacuum integrity was rather exciting and sucked all manner of contaminants (but no technicians) into the cabinet. Quarantine protocols called for dip tanks of peracetic acid and sodium hypochlorite for the purpose of sterilizing sealed sample containers by immersion. These tanks were placed in close proximity to sample handling operations. Astute members of LSAPT and NASA could also see that there was no room to process and store samples properly and that successful Apollo missions would be soon be arriving with more rocks and soils.
As advisors, LSAPT had no authority over quarantine and little effect on LRL management. Quarantine was mandated by a high level committee called the Interagency Committee on Back Contamination comprised of representatives from NASA, the U.S. Public Health Service, Dept. of Agriculture and academia. LRL Director P. R. Bell, also aware of the need for more processing and storage capability, was trying to get a second vacuum processing station funded. He worked hard on improving the reliability of the vacuum system in which he had invested so much of his energy. He was unwilling to give it up in the face of recommendations to process samples in nitrogen.
Four LSAPT scientists with a strong will to see that changes were made in the care of lunar samples took matters into their own hands. Known as the "Four Horsemen", Wasserburg, Walker, Paul Gast, and James R. Arnold finally took their cause to NASA Administrator Thomas Paine. The Four Horsemen got the attention of MSC's Director Robert Gilruth, who, after being taken on a nighttime inspection of the LRL, was very sympathetic and supportive toward making improvements.
1970 was a year of changes. The explosion aboard Apollo 13 and the aborted lunar sample return gave the LRL time to catch up and rethink procedures. The appointment of Tony Calio as Director of Science and Applications, Paul Gast as Chief of Lunar and Earth Sciences Division, and Mike Duke as Curator resulted in progress on lunar sample preservation and careful documentation. The requirement to process samples in vacuum was dropped after Apollo 12. A small, temporary storage vault was quickly constructed in building 31. The following year quarantine was discontinued after Apollo 14, and this permitted more focused thinking about the sample processing and storage problem.
The solution to the problem was to construct the Sample Storage and Processing Laboratory (SSPL) by remodeling part of B. 31 at JSC for the purpose of storing samples securely and cleanly under nitrogen and preparing samples requested by PIs. Working in SSPL was considerably easier than in the LRL. Technicians and scientists merely donned clean room suits over their street clothes to enter the laboratory. Samples were handled in gloved cabinets. After the Apollo 17 PET was completed in 1973 all the samples were moved from the LRL into building 31. Except for the gas analysis and radiation counting labs, the LRL was abandoned to the biologists and doctors.
Under the curatorships of Duke and Patrick Butler, documentation of sample handling was organized by sample number and standardized. Sample processing data collected from Apollo 15 onward was vastly improved. Materials touching lunar samples were strictly monitored and controlled. The excitement of opening new samples was maintained with the opening of drill stem and drive tube soil cores. SSPL was known as the "pristine lab", for other areas in the building housed the collection of "used" samples returned by PIs at the conclusion of their studies (Returned Sample Processing Laboratory, RSPL) and the Thin Section Lab. By the mid-1970s thousands of samples were returned by PIs each year. To enhance the scientific use of the samples, updating of the sample catalogs to summarize published composition information was begun. In the absence of fresh sample cargos, the urgency of preliminary examinations relented and LSAPT was slightly redirected as the Lunar and Planetary Sample Team (LAPST).
Lurking in the background was a concern that the lunar samples were vulnerable to natural disaster or military actions. A small fire and several ceiling water leaks in the pristine lab were reminders of this vulnerability. Not wishing to have "all the eggs in one basket", especially if the basket were subject to hurricanes, small portions of the lunar sample collection were placed in three separate vaults at JSC while awaiting the completion of a remote storage facility at Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio. One night in 1976 14% of the collection was secretly moved, with police escort, to San Antonio aboard a specially-modified, smooth-riding passenger bus and placed in the renovated bunker.
By then plans were underway to construct a hurricane-proof sample vault and processing laboratory. The building planners had several years experience in curating moon rocks and a good idea of what was needed. They had time to plan carefully and the politics of quarantine did not interfere with good science. The result, an annex added to building 31, was a laboratory constructed of chemically clean materials kept clean by high efficiency air filtration. The building seemed to have a personality all its own—it could automatically seal shut the air conditioning to the vault and gases coming into the cabinets in the event of an emergency. A trip into the sample vault was likened to a journey into the heart of an Egyptian pyramid by one journalist. All sample handling activities were codified in a set of procedures written specifically for use in the new building. The sample collection, then numbering 50,000 pristine samples and "used" samples, was placed in the vaults in 1979.
During the lean years of the early 1980s, the curatorial staff set up an in-house tool cleaning facility and operated a freon still (freon was a standard cleaning fluid before chlorofluorocarbons were implicated as destroyers of Earth's statospheric ozone). Opening of new cores was suspended for 6 years; however, slabbing of breccias in the search for "new" samples increased later in the decade.
1994 marks two technology upgrades. Tool and container cleaning is being changed to exclude environmentally-questionable freon in favor of new ultrapure water cleaning technology. Electronic conversion and storage of paper documents begins.
The principal gains since the completion of a proper facility have been the ever-tightening control of sample inventory, security and accountability for a national treasure. This expertise, for which the Office of the Curator remains a recognized leader, was enabled by interactive computer technology. Over the years the staff has grown in competence and expertise, acquiring the ability to do tasks formerly performed by other organizations. The curatorial operation currently provides an efficient means for inspecting, selecting and delivering samples to the scientific community.
After 25 years experience sample curation has evolved to a methodical and efficient operation encompassing meteorites, cosmic dust and space-exposed hardware in addition to lunar samples—experience with a range of sample types upon which to build curation of new extraterrestrial samples. G. J. Wasserburg has kindly said, "This laboratory has established a model to the world for the handling and distribution of rare extraterrestrial materials. The scientific community is gratified to have this capability and skill available and is proud of the accomplishments of the Lunar Sample Curatorial Facility."