The “Best Engineering Tool” in Space: Duct Tape

by Ian O'Neill on April 21, 2008

The fender on the Apollo 17 moon buggy was repaired with duct tape (NASA)
The uses for duct tape seem to be endless. From the Apollo missions in the 1970’s to the International Space Station today, duct tape has been used as quick fixes and semi-permanent solutions to a variety of tasks. In a story released today from NASA documenting the events of the Apollo 17 in 1972, duct tape became the saviour of astronauts Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt as they sped around on the lunar surface in their moonbuggy. Damage to the buggy’s wheel arch could have put the pair at risk and may have curtailed the surface mission (pictured). But with a flash of inspiration and “can do” attitude Cernan and Schmitt found the answer in a roll of grey sticky tape…

It would seem duct tape holds the world together as it is, and it is becoming clear that the tape may hold the frontier of space together too. I recently came across the NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day with a view from the ISS looking over Rick Linnehan as he carried out an EVA during the STS-123 mission in March. As many blogs commented, “wow, even the space station is held together with duct tape!“, duct tape and Velcro did indeed appear to be the best way for astronauts to attach things, fix things and cover up things. In the Great Moonbuggy Race in Huntsville, Alabama, Prof. Paul Shiue of Christian Brothers University even joked that duct tape was his team’s “best engineering tool”. It seems the space station crew agrees with Prof. Shiue as is evident in the photo below.

Duct tape is used extensively on the ISS... along with Velcro (NASA)

I think people are surprised that such a common, everyday tool can be utilized in space too, but I’d argue that this kind of versatile and strong tape should be in space doing its bit for space exploration. It seems NASA thinks the same thing. Back in 1972, the use of duct tape turned a potentially dangerous situation into mission success for the Apollo 17 astronauts.

During Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt’s Moon walk, they employed the use of a moonbuggy to get around the dusty terrain. As is becoming abundantly clear, Moon dust will be one of the biggest challenges to mankind’s efforts on the Earth’s only natural satellite. For starters, this fine Moon “regolith” (dust formed from pulverized rock after countless meteorite impacts) will get everywhere. It is so fine that that it will likely obscure vision and could cause a host of respiratory problems. But the critical issue facing the Apollo astronauts was the dark Moon dust getting stuck to their spacesuits. The moonbuggy was designed to suppress the dust from being kicked up from the surface and spayed over the passengers. Should the spacesuits have a layer of dust over the top, solar electromagnetic radiation would be absorbed very efficiently, causing the astronauts to overheat. At all costs, spacesuits and equipment would need to be “dusted off” to prevent any problems.

The repaired Apollo 17 buggy (NASA)

Within two hours of the Lunar lander Challenger landing on December 11th, 1972 (at 02:23:35 UTC), Cernan and Schmitt were busy loading the moonbuggy with geology tools and experiments. In a seemingly minor error, the hammer strapped to Cernan’s suited leg caught the buggy’s rear fender and ripped it half off. It may not sound like much; after all who needs a fender on the Moon? But this was a big problem. If they were to use the buggy in this condition, huge plumes of dust would be kicked up (known as “rooster tails”) and showered over the astronauts, sticking to their suits, possibly causing serious overheating issues. Lunar dust is also very abrasive and static, should it get wiped off visors, the glass will get scratched, impeding vision. Joints, latches and hinges would also get severely damaged by the stuff.

Fortunately the astronauts had packed duct tape and were able to do a make-shift job at fixing the fender. Unfortunately the harsh vacuum of space, the continuous exposure to the Sun and the ever present dust caused the tape to lose its “stick”. A more permanent solution was required. After communication with mission control, a solution was found. Using a combination of duct tape and laminated maps, the fender could be reconstructed. The EVA continued and the mission was a success.

See the NASA video of Gene Cernan carrying out duct tape repairs on the Moon »

The Apollo 17 mission is the last time man walked on the Moon, and remains the most extreme place where duct tape was called into use.

For the complete and absorbing story about the duct tape repair job by Gene Cernan, check out the full NASA article

About 

[Follow me on Twitter (@astroengine)]

[Check out my space blog: Astroengine.com]

[Check out my radio show: Astroengine Live!]

Hello! My name is Ian O'Neill and I've been writing for the Universe Today since December 2007. I am a solar physics doctor, but my space interests are wide-ranging. Since becoming a science writer I have been drawn to the more extreme astrophysics concepts (like black hole dynamics), high energy physics (getting excited about the LHC!) and general space colonization efforts. I am also heavily involved with the Mars Homestead project (run by the Mars Foundation), an international organization to advance our settlement concepts on Mars. I also run my own space physics blog: Astroengine.com, be sure to check it out!

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: