A History of the Lunar Receiving Laboratory
May 25, 1961
President John F. Kennedy, in a special message to Congress on “urgent national needs,” sets a goal for the United States: “… I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”
The Space Task Group at NASA Langley Field, which has been executing the Mercury Program, begins to move to temporary quarters in Houston in preparation for setting up the new Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) there.
Elements of MSC begin occupying their newly constructed center at Clear Lake City, Texas.1
February 25, 1964
An internal MSC memorandum is sent from the Assistant Chief for Space Environment to the Director of Engineering and Development in which the need for a central facility to accept and handle lunar samples is first identified. The original concept is for a 10′ × 10′ × 7′ vacuum chamber, 10–7 bar pressure, in which lunar sample containers will be opened and the samples characterized, subdivided, and packaged for distribution to external investigators. Remote manipulators are to accomplish these operations in the vacuum chamber.2,3
The rationale for vacuum processing is to preserve loosely bonded lunar gases in the samples for analysis, and also to guard against the possibility that the samples might be reactive with the terrestrial atmosphere.
The Engineering Division of MSC completes planning of a preliminary engineering concept for a lunar facility and presents it to MSC management. The projected cost is $11 million, and operational status will be reached in 1968.4
June 15, 1964
The Apollo Science Teams of the Planetology Subcommittee of NASA’s Office of Space Sciences and Applications (OSSA) is asked by NASA management to consider the necessity and requirements for a central lunar facility. The Apollo Science Teams meet in Houston. Their report is issued in December 1964.5,6
July 7, 1964
The projected design of the lunar sample facility at MSC is upgraded to something that more nearly resembles the Lunar Receiving Laboratory (LRL) that is later built. The facility is to include a vacuum chamber and also a cabinet filled with purified N2 gas for processing samples, ancillary laboratories for science, and offices, occupying in all ~8,000 square feet. At this time there is no plan for quarantine against back contamination. Manual versus mechanical manipulation is not specified for the vacuum chamber.7
July 29, 1964
The Space Science Board (SSB) of the National Research Council convenes a conference of representatives from the Public Health Service, the Department of Agriculture, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Academy of Sciences, and NASA to assess the back-contamination problem. The conference concludes that the existence of life on the Moon cannot be precluded, and it recommends that astronauts, spacecraft, and lunar materials should be received into an isolation unit; the astronauts should be held in rigid quarantine for at least three weeks; and preliminary examination of the samples should be conducted behind “absolute biological barriers, under rigid bacterial and chemical isolation.”8
NASA Headquarters challenges the scale of the sample-handling facility MSC has proposed. OSSA establishes an ad hoc committee to consider the requirements and concepts for a lunar laboratory, which meets in November and December in Houston.9,10
NASA requests that the National Research Council’s SSB review a draft of the ad hoc committee’s report. The SSB concludes that there is a need to quarantine the astronauts and lunar samples until they are proven biologically innocuous. Quarantine can be at some existing Public Health Service or U.S. Army installation. A
March 18, 1965
The Center for Disease Control (later the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC) publishes its recommended procedures for handling and quarantining the returned lunar samples.
MSC management establishes a technical working committee for preliminary and final engineering design studies of LRL.13
NASA Headquarters organizes a series of disciplinary working groups, which meet in Falmouth, Massachusetts, for the NASA Lunar Exploration and Science Summer Conference. Plans are made for soliciting and screening proposals by outside investigators. Participants consider and endorse the current plans for an LRL.14,15 The group warns of the likelihood that lunar soil will contaminate the ocean upon return to Earth. Although the group makes recommendations on details of sample handling, nothing is said about doing so in a vacuum.
July 31, 1965
A meeting between representatives of NASA and the Public Health Service (PHS) recommends that construction of an LRL be made contingent on NASA accepting responsibility for adequate containment of astronauts and returned materials and equipment behind suitable biological barriers. The responsibilities of the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior are recognized. The director of the Planetary Quarantine Bioscience Programs Division is specifically directed by the deputy administrator of NASA to establish informal discussions between PHS and the Office of Manned Space Flight (OMSF) on “planning for lunar return.”16
August 9, 1965
Melpar Inc. issues a report, “Semidetailed Design Considerations Related to Functions and Sample Flow Through the Lunar Sample Receiving Laboratory.” This plan includes a vacuum processing chamber (10–6-mm pressure).17,18
September 27, 1965
Discussions between PHS officials and NASA at Houston reveal that the two groups differ greatly in the gravity they attach to the quarantine requirement. Arguments by MSC, that material near the lunar surface is surely sterile, are rejected. Even if it costs $50 million to implement an effective quarantine, argues the PHS
representative, the added expense is justified. The requirement for a splashdown procedure that prevents contamination of the ocean dates from this time.19
A survey of facilities in the United States that might serve to quarantine the Apollo crews finds none to be adequate.22
The Interagency Committee on Back Contamination (ICBC) is established. It includes representatives from the Department of Agriculture, Department of the Interior, Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, National Academy of Sciences, and NASA.23
February 24, 1966
The House Subcommittee on Manned Space Flight rejects NASA’s request for $9.1 million for the Lunar Receiving Laboratory.
March 9, 1966
A NASA Headquarters reorganization moves lunar science from the Manned Space Flight program to OSSA.
March 16-23, 1966
In response to congressional criticism, NASA carries out another survey of facilities external to MSC that might serve as quarantine sites for the crews and samples. NASA again concludes that none is suitable.
March 31, 1966
In a rehearing, NASA convinces the House Subcommittee on Manned Space Flight that $9.1 million is needed for LRL, and that amount is approved by the House of Representatives.24
An LRL working group is established as part of the Planetology Subcommittee of NASA, composed of scientists from outside the agency. This group and ICBC establish the LRL requirements, and they review the design for construction.25
Proposals have been received from prospective lunar sample investigators outside NASA.26
The Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences approves an appropriation for LRL construction but reduces it to $8.1 million.27 Construction of LRL begins.
It is found that no aircraft carrier in the U.S. fleet has a deck crane rated to lift the Apollo Command Module (CM), with the astronauts inside, aboard during conditions of high seas. (The original plan has been to lift the CM onto a carrier and open it after it is connected to a shipboard containment facility.) The astronauts will have to exit the CM while it is floating in the ocean. Will this act contaminate the ocean? ICBC satisfies itself that it will not: The CM’s environmental control system will effectively filter pathogens and dust out of the CM’s air during the return trip. Thus the only concern is that the astronauts themselves might have become infected by hypothetical lunar pathogens, and they can wear biological isolation garments when they exit the CM. This is the basis for approving an ocean pickup.
However, this analysis discounts the presence of lunar dust in the CM.28 The presence of the dust was acknowledged at the time, but not taken seriously: “The interior of the command module . . . may come in contact with a small amount of lunar material that has been tracked in by the astronauts; in any case it will contain the astronauts for more than 2 days after their lunar exposure. Thus it must be considered contaminated; after removal of the astronauts and sample containers, it will be sealed for the duration of the quarantine.”29
January 10, 1967
The Science and Applications Directorate is established at MSC.30
January 13, 1967
LRL is placed in the Lunar and Earth Sciences Division at MSC, whose head reports to the director of the Science and Applications Directorate.31
ICBC writes a quarantine protocol aimed at consuming 1.2 kg of material, 5% of the nominal sample collection, in testing the reactions of animals and plants to lunar material. The protocol and sample requirement have been simplified by a decision to search not for living organisms in general but instead only for infectious organisms.32 The examinations are to include aerobic and anaerobic culturing; inoculation of plants, eggs, tissue cultures, amphibia, invertebrates, and normal and germ-free animals; and biochemical analyses.33
June 16, 1967
A formal protocol for operation of LRL and quarantining the samples and crew, 547 pages in length, is written by a team of biologists and physicians at Baylor University.34
June 29, 1967
August 1, 1967
August 24, 1967
An agreement between ICBC and NASA on the protection of Earth’s biosphere from lunar sources of contamination is signed.39
September 18-20, 1967
A meeting of approved outside sample investigators is held at MSC.40
Two key committees are organized: the Lunar Sample Analysis Planning Team (LSAPT) and the Lunar Sample Preliminary Examination Team (LSPET).41 LSAPT has 14 members, mostly physical scientists; its charge is stated in Chapter 6 of this report. LSPET also has 14 members, 11 physical and 3 biological scientists. It will have the responsibility of characterizing the various lunar samples before they are subdivided and sent to outside investigators.
October 5-7, 1967
The first meeting of LSAPT is held at MSC.42
MSC estimates that the funding needed to support outside investigators in the United States will be $3.6 million in FY 1968 and $3.8 million in FY 1969. There are 110 approved investigators, including 27 (not funded by NASA) from other nations.43
December 1-2, 1968
The first meeting of LSPET is held. Meetings of LSAPT and LSPET soon come to be held at about 1-month intervals.44
February 23, 1968
At a second meeting of LSAPT, discussion centers on problems associated with the uncompleted vacuum chamber in which returned lunar sample containers are to be opened (Figure B.1). The LRL manager, who has
confidence in the system, believes it will be operational in 3 to 4 months. LSAPT members are more skeptical and are concerned about how samples will be processed if the vacuum system is still problematical when Apollo 11 returns from the Moon.45
ICBC revives the question of whether the Apollo Command Module’s environmental control system, by filtering microbes out of the CM’s air during the return trip from the Moon, can really provide adequate planetary protection. ICBC raises the issue of the loose dust in the CM. However, by this time MSC is committed to the mission plan and can do little to change it. MSC institutes ineffectual plans for the astronauts to vacuum-clean the inside of the CM during their return to Earth.46
Another breach of planetary protection during the splashdown is identified: At an altitude of 10,000 feet the returning CM is to be vented to Earth’s atmosphere. Reacting to ICBC’s concern, MSC studies the problem but finds that a system to filter air being exhausted from the CM would be unacceptably heavy (30 lb), and bypasses the objection.47
In the final analysis, planetary protection is subordinated to other priorities. Quarantine of the crew was never intended to be absolute. One of the guidelines governing procedures states, “The preservation of human life should take precedence over the maintenance of quarantine.” Thus if a command module begins to sink during recovery operations, or if a major fire breaks out in the crew quarters of the receiving laboratory, or if a quarantined astronaut suffers a medical emergency that cannot be handled within LRL, the plan is to break quarantine.48,49
October 22 - November 1, 1968
A simulation of the handling and preliminary examination of samples is held. At this time the F-201 vacuum chamber is still inoperable. Members of the biomedical component of the simulation find and critique many problems.
NASA Headquarters asks experts from the regulatory agencies to evaluate MSC’s preparations for receipt and quarantine of the lunar samples. These advisors find LRL far from ready to handle the mission: There are equipment problems, a shortage of technicians, incompletely trained personnel, and deficient protocols for biological testing.50
An MSC contractor, Brown and Root Northrup (BRN), is given responsibility for carrying out the biological testing of returned samples. BRN and NASA personnel rewrite the Baylor protocol in time for the March simulation.
A month-long simulation of sample processing is held. The F-201 breaks down repeatedly. Organic contamination in the system is found to emanate from the vacuum pumping system, reinforcing a feeling of LSAPT that
April 4, 1969
NASA Policy Directive 8020.13 formally assigns responsibility for forward contamination to OSSA (meaning that an inventory of Earth organisms transported to the Moon should be maintained), and for back contamination to OMSF (“certifying to the Administrator that the recommendations and statutory requirements of the regulatory agencies have been fulfilled prior to the release of lunar astronauts or lunar exposed materials from quarantine”). Several years of warfare between OSSA and OMSF have preceded this.53
April 28-30, 1969
Another conference of approved outside investigators is held at MSC.54
Another simulation of sample return is held.55,56 For this occasion, the director of LRL is temporarily replaced by a member of top-level MSC management. Technical personnel in LRL feel the simulation is as far from
satisfactory as the March 1969 simulation was. However, the interim director pronounces it a success and certifies the facility as ready to receive lunar samples.
July 24, 1969
Apollo 11 splashdown.
July 25 - August 10, 1969
The Apollo 11 samples are quarantined and subjected to preliminary examination. Sample containers are opened in the F-201, cursory preliminary examinations are made there, and individual samples are then packaged and placed in metal bolt-top vacuum containers and passed out of the F-201 for storage and distribution.
Few plans have been made for timely subdivision, packaging, and distribution of samples to outside investigators. No safeguards are in place against contamination of the samples that might compromise scientific investigations. Rocks are sawed or broken in open air, using ordinary, chemically impure tools. No plan is in place for the long-term curation of the samples, and this is an urgent problem because the Apollo 11 samples must be removed from the sample-handling facility, and the facility cleaned, before November 24, when the samples from the next mission (Apollo 12) will arrive.
Members of LSAPT are deeply concerned by the disarray of the system—the obstacles created by the vacuum chamber and also by quarantine protocols, the many potential sources of contamination of the samples, and the general inefficiency of operations. They take their case to the top, visiting the NASA administrator and the director of MSC. With the support of these managers, LSAPT members take personal responsibility for obtaining chemically clean chisels and other tools, and certifiably clean containers for sample distribution. Because of its effectiveness in improving LRL operations, and the outspoken nature of some of its members, LSAPT comes to enjoy an unprecedented degree of influence in the management of LRL.
November 6, 1969
After the Apollo 11 samples are found not to react with dry nitrogen, a consensus develops in LSAPT that handling the samples in pure nitrogen would be greatly preferable to relying further on the problematic F-201. However, the LRL director remains faithful to the vacuum system in which he has invested so much of his energy. In the end a compromise is reached: The mission plan for Apollo 12 is that one of the two sample return containers will be processed in the F-201 complex; the other, in a nitrogen-filled glove box.57
November 24, 1969
Apollo 12 splashdown.
December 2, 1969
During preliminary examination of the Apollo 12 samples a cut glove in the LRL vacuum chamber causes a “spill,” sending 11 exposed people to the Crew Reception Area, which is filled to overflowing, for the duration of quarantine.58 (Some personnel who also were exposed to the hypothetical spill evade quarantine by fleeing the area before guards charged with enforcing quarantine rules arrive.)
February 12, 1970
The manager of LRL is replaced.59 The new manager also favors use of the F-201 for sample processing.
April 13, 1970
The explosion of an oxygen tank in the Service Module of Apollo 13 prevents that mission from sampling the Moon and delays the launch of the next mission, pending study of the failure. Where Apollo launches had been scheduled to occur at 4- or 5-month intervals, Apollo 13 opens a hiatus of 13 months between the return of Apollo 12 and Apollo 14 samples.
This “breather” is welcomed by LRL personnel and LSAPT as an opportunity to install equipment, and acquire tools, needed for clean sample handling and storage in LRL. Extensive glove-box facilities (Figure B.2) are constructed to facilitate processing of samples in a sterile nitrogen environment, tested, and cleaned.
LSAPT succeeds in having the F-201 deactivated in favor of the use of nitrogen cabinets.
December 15, 1970
The manager of LRL is again replaced.60
February 9, 1971
Apollo 14 splashdown.
April 28, 1971