It was with a certain amount of glee that I arrived at my aunt’s house near Houston, Texas, a few weeks ago and told her the highlight of my media tour at NASA’s Johnson Space Center was putting on a bunny suit.
The incredulous eyebrows were lowered when I explained that this is the playful name given to the clean-room attire needed to enter the Lunar Receiving Lab, a “library” of moon rocks and other cosmic material cataloged for study in Johnson’s Building 37.
The process of entering the lab was pretty intense. My tour group had already been instructed to wear long pants and closed-toe shoes—the first time I had ever been given a dress code for a media briefing.
First we needed to set aside any sundry items (pen, notepad, camera) we wanted to take with us to be cleaned by helpful professionals. Then we had to take off all jewelry and step inside a mostly bare room, where one can only put street shoes on the gray “welcome” mat. Blue booties went over the shoes, and we immediately had to step on the white tiles and move toward the next door.
Behind Door Number Two we put on the aforementioned bunny suit: a white jumpsuit, tall cloth boots, a hat, and gloves.
Next we stepped into an air lock-style holding area, where we were swept with filtered air for a full minute before finally being allowed to set foot inside the lab.
In addition to offering a basic history of the facility, lunar scientist Wendell Mendell, one of our tour guides, let us know that the bland color on the walls was actually a deliberate choice. Moon rock is low in volatiles such as lead, and the off-green shade was the one with the lowest volatile content.
The samples are kept from contamination inside carefully designed vaults. They’re brought to the lab for study inside environmentally controlled cases that control exposure to water and oxygen, and only three Earthly materials can ever touch them: aluminum alloys, Teflon, and stainless steel.
Any samples out for analysis go back into the vaults during a hurricane—an especially relevant fact considering our tour took place just five days before Hurricane Ike slammed into the Texas coast.
Gary Lofgren, lunar sample curator, seemed most excited to show us the famed Genesis rock, a unique piece of the lunar crust brought back from the 1971 Apollo 15 mission.
—Photograph by Victoria Jaggard
The chunk of ancient mineral—made mostly of calcium, aluminum, and silicon—came from Spur Crater and is thought to date back about four billion years, to the early days of the moon’s formation.
Apollo samples like Genesis continue to provide new insights into solar system history, including last year’s finding that the moon could have an iron core similar to Earth’s.
But scientists are hoping to get a fresh supply of samples when the Constellation program [hopefully] sends people back to the moon by 2020 to build a lunar outpost.
Maybe it’s a tad cynical, but one of my first reactions to the idea of putting a full-time base on the moon was to wonder how to curb the human tendency to litter, an unfortunate habit that would be more than just an eyesore for astronauts collecting pure moon samples for study.
According to Lofgren, controlling contamination of moon samples once the outpost is up and running is an “active area of study” in preparation for the mission.