Lunar Sample Laboratory Facility
Geologic samples returned from the Moon by the Apollo lunar surface exploration missions (1969-1972), along with associated data records, are physically protected, environmentally preserved, and scientifically processed in a special building dedicated for that purpose at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. A total of 382 kilograms of lunar material, comprising 2200 individual specimens returned from the Moon, has been processed to meet scientific requirements into more than 110,000 individually cataloged samples.
Building 31N at Johnson Space Center was constructed from 1977 to 1979 and opened in 1979 to provide for permanent storage of the lunar sample collection in a physically secure and non-contaminating environment. The purpose of the facility is to maintain in pristine condition the lunar samples that comprise a priceless national and scientific resource while making the samples available to approved scientists and educators. Approximately 100 people visit the facility annually for research or educational purposes. Several hundred other people are served remotely each year by provision of samples for use in laboratories or classrooms. Untold numbers of people are also served by the display samples that are prepared in the facility for loan to public museums and expositions.
NASA JSC File Photograph S85-36332. Staff scientists at work in the Lunar Sample Laboratory Facility at NASA JSC. "Pristine" lunar samples (those continuously in NASA custody since return from the Moon) are stored and handled in stainless steel glove cabinets that are purged by high-purity nitrogen gas to minimize degradation of the samples. Pristine samples are always separated from human hands by three layers of gloves.
NASA JSC File Photograph S82-26777. Staff scientists prepare to divide a pristine lunar rock inside a nitrogen processing cabinet in the Lunar Sample Laboratory Facility at NASA JSC. Samples subdivided for approved research projects are handled with specially cleaned tools and are sealed under nitrogen before lending to science customers. Researchers may open and handle the samples in air if their experiments so require. But leftover sample material, which must be returned to NASA, is reclassified as “returned” and is kept separate from pristine samples.
The facility features storage vaults that stand elevated above anticipated storm-surge sea level heights to protect the samples from threats posed by hurricanes. All materials used in constructing and equipping the building (including floor coverings, walls, plumbing, light fixtures, and paint) were carefully screened to exclude chemical elements that would pose unacceptable contamination threats to the lunar samples.
Preparation of samples for shipment to authorized recipients is conducted in stainless steel environmental cabinets purged by high-purity nitrogen that is continuously monitored for oxygen and moisture contents. The facility also includes rooms to support sample examinations and experiments by visiting scientists. More than 100 research laboratories around the world actively pursue studies of the samples and approximately 500 samples are prepared and sent to investigators each year. Samples that are not consumed in analysis are retrieved by NASA as “returned” samples that are recycled to other users as appropriate.
Lunar samples remain very strong educational magnets that continue to attract the attention of geologists, chemists, and physicists. Lunar sample studies have inspired the development of new methods for chemical and isotopic analysis and have honed the skills of two professional generations of scientists; the third generation is well into training in the 1990s.