People at NASA/Johnson Space Center (JSC) get to do a lot of cool things. Arguably one of the coolest is working in the Lunar Sample Lab.
On July 9, four ERC employees, Antha Adkins, Brian Petty, Darryl Smith, and K’Aura Lyons, toured this lab with Andrea Mosie, courtesy of fellow ERC employee Ann Kascak, who works there making sure the right rocks get to the right researcher with the right paperwork. It is a job where carelessness is not an option – every detail has to be exactly correct, a lab philosophy that became obvious during our tour.
Before we could enter the lab, we removed our jewelry and our NASA badges and left them and our other belongings in a room outside the lab. We were allowed to bring our cameras, but they were wiped down and then passed through an airlock. Next we sat on a bench with our feet on a brown mat, put blue booties on over our shoes, and stepped onto the clean floor with the booties. We donned bunny suits – white one-piece garments that zip up the front and snap around the ankles, wrists, and neck to stay tight to the body. To complete the outfit, we had white boots that fit over the blue booties and snapped around the bunny suit, puffy white hats with tight elastic to put over our hair, and gloves to pull on over the wrists of the bunny suit. Fully garbed, we passed through the human airlock with laminar airflow to separate the outside air from the clean room air.
We were in the lab. But even in bunny suits with clean air, people do not handle the lunar samples directly.
The lab houses two rows of stainless steel glove boxes, each large enough to accommodate two researchers. When the glove box is pressurized with clean nitrogen gas, the long black gloves inflate and stick straight out from the glove box. I found it more challenging than I expected to get my fingers lined up with the fingers of the glove and my hand pushed into the box. My second hand was easier because once it was in the box, I could use my first hand to straighten out the glove. If we were handling lunar samples, we would have to put on another pair of gloves inside the box. Once we were working in the box, we could feel the pressure change when our co-users reached further into the box to get a tool off the shelf. We handled the tools and put a calibrated weight on the glove box scale to see if the scale was within calibration. It was. If it was not within calibration, a tech would have to be called to calibrate it before it could be used. After working in the glove box for a very short time, my hands felt hot and sweaty, and I could understand why the tools and samples were handled through so many layers – we wouldn’t want to contaminate the samples with sweat.
After experimenting with a glove box with no lunar samples, we looked into glove boxes with lunar samples. Each glove box is dedicated to the samples from a particular Apollo mission. We could really see the grain of the different rocks. One sample was from the whiter highland rock, and another was from the darker mare rock, which looked almost speckled. Another glove box had four large samples from different lunar missions. One of those samples looked porous, like a gray sponge. It was fascinating to see the variety. Each sample is individually numbered and labeled. If “daughter” pieces are chipped off a sample, each daughter piece is given a number identifying both the original sample and the individual daughter piece. They are all carefully weighed and photographed. Before they leave the glove box, they are packed in sample vials or sealed bags, with at least two layers of bags and nitrogen gas.
Once we had seen the lab, we entered the hallway outside, where the doors to the airlocks to each glove box are located. In order to put a sample or tool into a glove box, one would open the outer door in the hall, put in the sample or tool, close the outer door, go into the lab, cycle the air out of the airlock, and then open the inner door from the glove box to retrieve the sample or tool.
Scientists are still studying and learning from the lunar samples, and they are loaned out to scientists around the world. They are also loaned to museums for public display. Once the scientist or museum is done with their samples, they return the samples to the Lunar Sample Lab, where they are carefully cataloged and stored as “returned” samples instead of “pristine” samples. In this area of the lab, we were able to hold some museum display samples.
We finished our tour with a stop by Ann’s office, where there is a library of folders for every sample in all the labs, including the Lunar Sample Lab. Every sample has its own folder with its own paperwork, measurements, and photos.
I came away thoroughly impressed by how carefully the lunar samples are handled, measured, cataloged, and shared. The people who work with them are obsessively methodical to protect the samples against contamination and loss.
The Lunar Sample Lab is a national treasure where the priceless lunar samples are being well cared for, and it was a delightful treat to get to see it. I’ve been grinning all day.
Written by Antha Adkins