After 40 Years Moon Rocks Still Revealing Secrets

Scientists in the Lunar Receiving Laboratory. Credit: NASA

Even though scientists have been able to study Moon rocks up close for almost 40 years, there are still many answers to be gleaned from the lunar samples collected by the Apollo astronauts. “We know even more now and can ask smarter questions as we research these samples,” says Randy Korotev from Washington University in St. Louis. “There are still some answers, we believe, in the Apollo 11 mission.” One possible clue the Moon rocks could provide is a better understanding of Earth’s history and when life actually began on our planet.

Korotev has been mainly interested in studying the impact history of the moon, how the moon’s surface has been affected by meteorite impacts and the nature of the early lunar crust.

“You can look at the moon and know that the moon has been hit a lot by very large meteorites,” he said. “We know this occurred some 3.9 billion years ago. We don’t know, however, the history of large meteorites hitting the Earth — we can’t see those impacts because they would have been erased by Earth’s active geology. We want to see if meteorite bombardment on the moon coincided with what was happening on Earth, and, in turn, with life starting on Earth.”

Recently, Korotev and his colleagues decided to begin taking a closer look at the Apollo samples to learn more about the Moon’s impact history. He says they still have much work to do with his samples, which have been chemically analyzed and are sealed in tubes and securely stored away for now.

Korotev expects the Apollo Moon rocks will provide scientific study for years to come, as our technology and understanding of the Moon improves. “We went to the moon and collected samples before we knew much about the moon,” he said. “We didn’t totally understand the big concept of what the moon was like until early 2000 as a result of missions that orbited the moon collecting mineralogical and compositional data.”
“Bringing samples back from the Moon wasn’t the point of the mission,” added Korotev. “It was really about politics. It took scientists like Bob Walker to bring these samples back — to show the value of them for research.”

Korotev credits Walker, also from Washington University and a handful of other scientists for the fact that there are even moon samples to study.

“Bob convinced them to build a receiving lab for the samples and advised them on the handling and storage of them. We didn’t go to the moon to collect rocks, so we scientists are really lucky that we have this collection.”

See Universe Today’s article on the history of the Lunar Receiving Lab.

Researchers in WUSTL's Laboratory for Space Sciences in Arts & Sciences have a long tradition of being among the first in the world to receive samples from a NASA mission. In this photo taken in 1969, the late Robert M. Walker, Ph.D., the McDonnell Professor of Physics and first director of the university's McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences in Arts & Sciences, displays photos and lunar samples from the Apollo 11 mission that year.  Credit: WUSTL
Researchers in WUSTL's Laboratory for Space Sciences in Arts & Sciences have a long tradition of being among the first in the world to receive samples from a NASA mission. In this photo taken in 1969, the late Robert M. Walker, Ph.D., the McDonnell Professor of Physics and first director of the university's McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences in Arts & Sciences, displays photos and lunar samples from the Apollo 11 mission that year. Credit: WUSTL

Walker was recruited to serve on the scientific team that advised NASA on the handling and distribution of moon rocks and soil samples from the first Apollo missions. That team distributed Apollo 11 samples to some 150 laboratories worldwide, including Washington University, St. Louis (WUSTL).

Walker also briefed those early astronauts about what to expect on the rocky, dusty moon surface.

In an interview some months after the first moon samples arrived in WUSTL’s space sciences lab, Walker recalled the excitement of that momentous day in 1969: “We felt just like a bunch of kids who were suddenly given a brand new toy store … there was so much to do, we hardly knew where to begin.”

Ghislaine Crozaz, Ph.D., professor of earth and planetary sciences emerita in Arts & Sciences at Washington University and a member of Walker’s space sciences group that was one of those selected to study the first lunar samples, says the event is “as vivid in my mind as if it had happened yesterday.”
Small rock fragments from the lunar "soil" collected by the Apollo 11 astronauts in 1969. The background grid spacing is 2 mm.  Credit: WUSTL
Crozaz says that the team studied the cosmic rays and radiation history of the lunar samples mainly using nuclear particle tracks, which were revealed by techniques invented by Walker.

“After we received the samples in early September, we worked like hell until the First Lunar Science Conference in early January 1970 in Houston, where we arrived with our Science paper after having worked ‘incommunicado’ for 4 months.”

In their study of the lunar materials, Walker’s laboratory led the way in deciphering their record of lunar, solar system and galactic evolution. Of special importance was the information they gave on the history of solar radiation and cosmic rays.

Crozaz says the lunar samples provided insights into the history of the solar system that couldn’t be achieved at the time by looking at meteorites found on Earth. The intense heat encountered during their passage through the atmosphere would have erased much of the record of radiation the meteorites carried.

Source: Washington University St. Louis

How to Handle Moon Rocks and Lunar Bugs: A Personal History of Apollo’s Lunar Receiving Lab

Apollo 11 crew in quarantine talking with President Richard Nixon. Credit: NASA

50 lbs. of moon rocks. That’s how much weight was allocated for the Apollo 11 astronauts to bring back lunar samples to Earth. But this would be the first time materials from another world would be brought to our planet. What should be done with these alien rocks, and could they possibly be a threat to life as we know it?

What started out as a seemingly straightforward idea of building a facility to store and study rocks from the Moon ended up becoming a power struggle between engineers building the facility and scientists who wanted to study the rocks and those who wanted to save the world from biological disaster — not to mention even more squabbling between the various governmental agencies and politicians. In the middle of it all was James McLane, Jr. one of the engineers tasked with the early planning for the Manned Spaceflight Center –now known as Johnson Space Center in Houston — and in particular, he led a group to determine the requirements and design concept of NASA’s Lunar Receiving Laboratory.

James C. McLane Jr. in 1971.  Photo courtesy of James McLane Jr.
James C. McLane Jr. in 1971. Photo courtesy of James McLane Jr.

“We started the Manned Spaceflight Center from scratch and a cadre of people envisioned what we should have for the space program’s ground facilities,” said McLane, in an interview from his home with Universe Today. “A whole range of facilities were recommended. For a year or so I went from one design review to another to add my two bits as to how things might be done. The new facilities included a big manned centrifuge, electronics labs, and a thermal vacuum lab with a couple of very big space simulation chambers to test the Apollo spacecraft and its onboard crew under conditions similar to those to be found during the lunar missions. There was just about everything you could think of that was needed to support the Apollo program.”

While engineers at the MSC were intent on designing unique, world-class facilities (as well as rockets and spacecraft to take humans to the moon) scientists were excited about the prospect of researching pristine lunar materials.

Lunar Receiving lab concept drawing. Credit: NASA
Lunar Receiving lab concept drawing. Credit: NASA

During this time, a couple of young MSC scientists, chemist Don Flory and geologist Elbert King had been given responsibility of designing the airtight sample return containers in which lunar samples would be brought back to Earth. But, said McLane, no one had given much thought as to how the rocks should be handled or stored once they were brought back to Earth. “There really wasn’t much direction on what should be done after we got them back to Earth,” he said. “Oh, there were scientific committees of course, but for some reason this was down low on their priority list. I think they were thinking more about the research they were going to do with the rocks.”

But one day Flory and King showed up in their boss’s office and said since they had the responsibility for the container they were a little concerned what would be done with it after the astronauts returned the samples. They suggested that, at least, the containers ought to be opened in a vacuum chamber.

“They asked, ‘Does anyone around the Center have a small vacuum chamber where we can open these boxes?’ And that started the whole business of what would happen to the lunar samples and what was required to do that,” said McLane. “A small office was setup under the Assistant Director of Engineering, Aleck Bond, and I was assigned to head it. We were charged with determining what was needed to receive, protect, catalog, and distribute the materials collected from the surface of the moon. We were guided and assisted by a committee appointed by NASA headquarters, consisting mostly of people who had been selected, or expected to be selected as principal investigators for some of the many examinations and experiments proposed for the lunar samples.”

The initial plan called for a clean room approximately “ten feet by ten feet by seven feet” where the sample box could be opened under vacuum conditions and repackaged for distribution to various researchers.

But some NASA officials concluded just a single room wouldn’t be sufficient, and quickly came up with a plan for a 2,500 square foot research facility where the lunar samples would not only be stored, but studied as well. After more discussion, an 8,000 square-foot version was proposed.

Scientists in the Lunar Receiving Laboratory. Credit: NASA
Scientists in the Lunar Receiving Laboratory. Credit: NASA

Working with the scientific advisory committee to develop a workable plan for the ever-growing and changing proposed facility turned out to be an interesting challenge for McLane and his team.

“The biggest challenges were political,” McLane said. “All the scientists involved in studying the samples had laboratories of their own. They didn’t want to do anything unless it was going to benefit their facility back home. Others were suspicious that we were trying to appropriate activities that weren’t in the Manned Spacecraft Center’s charter at the expense of other NASA Centers. So, it was difficult to get everybody to cooperate and agree on just on the initial receiving procedure. A few of the experiments such as those to determine low level radiation properties of the samples were very time dependant. Thus it became evident that the facility and equipment required to perform those experiments would have to be located very near the point where the samples were first available. That point was Houston, and it particularly rankled some of the scientists to see new state-of-the-art facilities and equipment being located at Houston rather than at their home laboratories.”

“I had never worked with high level scientists before, and our advisory committee usually consisted of people who were at the level of principal assistants to Nobel Prize winners,” McLane continued.”Overall, it was a great group to work with, with one important exception. They each reserved the right to change his mind. It was not unusual for us to settle a contentious issue only to have it brought up again some weeks later. This caused some real schedule problems, but the instigator would plead ’Well, I was just wrong before’, or ‘I changed my mind’, often ignoring schedule and reality.

For example, one issue was whether to use glove boxes or use a closed container with mechanical manipulators (McLane equated them to the toy grappling machines in restaurants, only a little fancier) to work with the moon rocks. It took many discussions and debates to decide, and the decision would make a big different on what direction the engineers needed to go for building the lab, and they had a limited amount of time to decide.

McLane was also surprised about all the different scientific speculation that took place. “Some of the leading scientists of this country thought the moon was covered with several hundred feet of lunar dust and thought that when we landed on the moon the spacecraft would sink into the dust,” he said. “Fortunately that didn’t happen. Others thought the rocks on the moon, sitting in hard vacuum and bombarded with radiation and meteorites, that when first exposed to air they might catch on fire or explode. The speculations by good, smart, reputable people were just unlimited. But I guess they were trying to think of all the possibilities. We were fortunate that no one forced us to plan for any of these extreme speculations. Overall, our advisors did a good job of things.”

The Lunar Receving Lab shortly after it was built. Credit: NASA
The Lunar Receving Lab shortly after it was built. Credit: NASA

But then at one of the meetings in Washington to meet with advisors at NASA Headquarters, a scientist from the Public Health Service showed up and asked how NASA was going to protect against contamination of the Earth by lunar microorganisms.

McLane said the initial reaction by everyone else was, “What?”

For a couple of years a small group of scientists (which included a young and relatively unknown scientist named Carl Sagan) had been discussing the remote possibility that lunar samples brought back to Earth might contain deadly organisms that could destroy life on Earth. Even the spacecraft and the astronauts themselves could possibly bring back non-terrestrial organisms that could be harmful. Several governmental agencies, including the Department of Agriculture, the US Army, and the National Institute of Health got wind of this idea — and perhaps blew it a little out of proportion — and NASA was forced to take action to prevent a possible biological disaster.

“The ‘lunar bugs’ as we called them,” said McLane, “well, nobody really believed there was life on the Moon, especially something that might affect people – make them sick or kill off our civilization, that sort of thing.”

McLane said that the first time Deke Slayton, head astronaut at the time, heard about this, he just about “flew out the window.”

“He said, ‘No way is somebody going to step in and put these restraints on the program. It’s difficult enough to just fly to the moon without all these precautions about contamination.’ But NASA had meetings with the Surgeon General of the US, and he took the attitude, ‘How much is the Apollo program going to cost – $20 billion or so? I don’t think it is outlandish to set aside one percent of that to guard against great catastrophe on Earth.'”

“We said that we would take on the challenge of guarding against organisms, but the Surgeon General would have to justify it to the Congress, about the increased costs to the program,” McLane recalled. “And he did. So that got settled. We developed a scheme and it was approved. Everyone had to accept it, there wasn’t any choice.”

That changed the entire complexion of what McLane and his team had to accomplish before astronauts could go to the Moon. What started out a just a small clean room would now have to be a research lab, plus a quarantine facility. Plans for the facility grew to an 86,000 square foot structure that would cost over $9 million.

Lunar Receiving Lab.  This drawing illustrates the complex design of the LRL, with its several different components including Lunar Sample Laboratory, Astronaut Reception Area, Radiation Laboratory, and Support and Administration. Credit: NASA
Lunar Receiving Lab. This drawing illustrates the complex design of the LRL, with its several different components including Lunar Sample Laboratory, Astronaut Reception Area, Radiation Laboratory, and Support and Administration. Credit: NASA

“We had to devise all the precautions,” said McLane, “as well as the facilities and procedures for quarantine of the astronauts, as well as accepting the samples and initiating tests on the rocks that had to be done quickly behind absolute biological barriers to test for any contamination before anything could be distributed to the scientific community. It was very interesting work.”

The LRL had accommodations for all the people and equipment that needed to be quarantined. “The astronauts were picked up in the ocean and they had to wear a special suit that was supposedly impervious to ‘lunar bugs,'” McLane said. “The astronauts were put into a modified Grumman Airstream trailer and delivered to Houston, trailer and all, waving at everyone through the windows, and talking to the president. They were taken to the Lunar Receiving Lab and placed in quarantine. It was comfortable in there, but the astronauts didn’t particularly like being in quarantine. We tried to limit the number of people who went into quarantine with them, but inevitably there were a few people– mostly ambitious secretaries and that sort of thing— who intentionally violated procedure and exposed themselves to the hypothetical lunar bugs and had move into the quarantine quarters.” The astronauts stayed in quarantine for three weeks.

First lunar samples arrive from Apollo 11.  Credit: NASA
First lunar samples arrive from Apollo 11. Credit: NASA

By the time Apollo 11 launched McLane had moved on to other projects. “My part of the organization was the engineering directorate, and I was only charged with determining the requirements for the facility and staffing the facility,” he said. “Once we reached the point where the design had come along and the staffing was pretty well up, leading the lab required someone with an interest in science as opposed to engineering.”

But he watched with interest as the first mission to the Moon unfolded. He even had a place in the Mission Control VIP viewing gallery for the launch, sitting just behind science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke.

Of course, it was determined that there were no “lunar bugs” and the quarantine requirement was dropped after Apollo 14. But the LRL safely stored, distributed and allowed for study of the lunar samples. In 1976 a portion of the samples were moved to Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas for second-site storage.
The LRL building is currently occupied by NASA’s Life Sciences division. It contains biomedical and environment labs, and is used for experiments involving human adaptation to microgravity.

James C. McLane Jr today.  Photo courtesy of James McLane Jr.
James C. McLane Jr today. Photo courtesy of James McLane Jr.

The lessons learned from creating the LRL will certainly be used in preparing for the first Mars sample return mission. Now, 86 years of age, will McLane offer any words of advice?

“The best that I hear now is that the techniques of isolation we used wouldn’t be adequate for a sample coming back from Mars,” he said, “so somebody else has a big job on their hands.”

McLane will be attending a special Apollo 11 celebration at Johnson Space Center – “just for the old timers,” he said.

For more information on the history of the Lunar Receiving Lab, see NASA’s “Lunar Receiving Laboratory Project History.”

Additional source: “Moon Rocks and Moon Germs: A History of NASA’s Lunar Receiving Laboratory,” Astronautics and Aeronauts, Winter 2001.

Apollo 11 Anniversary Link-O-Rama

Apollo 11 landing site on Tranquility Base. Credit: NASA

The Apollo 11 40th anniversary is coming at us fast and furious! With restored images and video, mission audio, interviews, and special features, who can keep track of it all? Well, we’re going to try. We’ll post here all the links we can find that has anything to do with the anniversary. If you find something of interest elsewhere you think we should add, email it to Nancy or post it in the comments, and we’ll add it. This will be Apollo 11 anniversary HQ!

Audio, Video, etc:

Listen to Apollo 11 mission audio “live” to the minute as it happened 40 years ago (July 16-24) or listen later at any time: We Choose the Moon

High-Definition Restored Apollo 11 Video from NASA

Listen to audio recorded from inside the Apollo 11 spacecraft which have never been heard before by the public

Read the transcriptions of the recorded audio

Find other recordings and transcriptions here.

Video from INA French television’s broadcasts from July 1969

IYA Malta’s Moon for All Mankind video

Cool websites:

NASA’s Apollo 11 40th Anniversary website

NASA’s Apollo Missions website

NASA’s Interactive Tranquility Base

Apollo 11 Timeline

NASA’s Apollo Lunar Surface Journals

Detailed Summaries of the Apollo missions

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Apollo 11 site

The Boston Globe’s Big Picture does Apollo 11

Discovery News Apollo 11 Slideshow

Dramatic panoramas of the Apollo landing sites.

Free online book from the National Acadamies Press:

Q & A with Apollo 11 Astronaut Michael Collins

Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins. Credit: GeekoutNewYork


Michael Collins has always been one of my favorite people (I even wrote a song about him). He’s funny, he’s humble, he’s passionate, he’s a great writer, and oh yeah — he’s an astronaut. Collins was the command module pilot for Apollo 11 and he also flew on Gemini X in 1966.

Now, at 78 years of age, Collins decided not to give any media interviews during the hubbub of the Apollo 11 40th anniversary, and instead issued a Q & A of the questions he is most frequently asked. He did a great job of being both the interviewer and the interviewee, showing his humorous and honest nature. Collins took some of his answers from his book, Carrying the Fire, and any of the following sections in quotation marks are from that reference. Read on and find out for yourself if Mike Collins is a grumpy recluse!

Q. Circling the lonely moon by yourself, the loneliest person in the universe, weren’t you lonely?

A. No.

“Far from feeling lonely or abandoned, I feel very much a part of what is taking place on the lunar surface. I know that I would be a liar or a fool if I said that I have the best of the three Apollo 11 seats, but I can say with truth and equanimity that I am perfectly satisfied with the one I have. This venture has been structured for three men, and I consider my third to be as necessary as either of the other two. I don’t mean to deny a feeling of solitude. It is there, reinforced by the fact that radio contact with the Earth abruptly cuts off at the instant I disappear behind the moon, I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life. I am it. If a count were taken, the score would be three billion plus two over on the other side of the moon, and one plus God knows what
on this side.”

Collins suiting up for Apollo 11.  Credit: NASA
Collins suiting up for Apollo 11. Credit: NASA

Q. Did you have the best seat on Apollo 11?

A. No.

“The cancellation of 014 also freed Borman-Stafford-Collins for reassignment, and reassigned we were, but not as a unit. Tom Stafford moved up a notch and acquired his own highly experienced crew, John Young and Gene Cernan; they became McDivitt’s back-up. Score one for Tom. Borman and Collins got promoted to prime crew of the third
manned flight, picking up Bill Anders as our third member.

In the process, Collins also got ‘promoted’ from lunar module pilot to command module pilot, and lost right then and there his first chance to walk on the surface of the moon. The reason I had to move up was that Deke at that time had a firm rule that the command module pilot on all flights involving LM must have flown before in space, the idea being that he didn’t want any rookie in the CM by himself. Since Bill and Anders had not flown, I was it. Slowly it sunk in. No LM for me, no EVA, no fancy flying, no need to practice in helicopters anymore.”

Q. Were you happy with the seat you had?

A. Yes, absolutely. It was an honor.

Q. Has the space program helped young people become interested in careers in math and science? Don’t you tell kids to opt for these choices?

A. Yes and no. We definitely have a national problem in that kids seem to be going for money rather than what they consider ‘nerdy’ careers. Other countries are outstripping us in the quality and quantity of math and science grads, and this can only hurt in the long run. But a liberal arts education, particularly English, is a good entry point no matter what the later specialization. I usually talk up English.

Q. Turning to your flight, what is your strongest memory of Apollo 11?

A. Looking back at Earth from a great distance.

“I really believe that if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of 100,000 miles their outlook could be fundamentally changed. That all-important border would be invisible, that noisy argument silenced. The tiny globe would continue to turn, serenely ignoring its subdivisions, presenting a unified facade that would cry out for unified understanding, for homogeneous treatment. The earth must become as it appears: blue and white, not capitalist or Communist; blue and white, not rich or poor; blue and white, not envious or envied.”

Small, shiny, serene, blue and white, FRAGILE.

Q. That was 40 years ago. Would it look the same today?

A. Yes, from the moon, but appearances can be deceiving. It’s certainly not serene, but definitely fragile, and growing more so. When we flew to the moon, our population was 3 billion; today it has more than doubled and is headed for 8 billion, the experts say. I do
not think this growth is sustainable or healthy. The loss of habitat, the trashing of oceans, the accumulation of waste products – this is no way to treat a planet.

Q. You are starting to sound a little grumpy. Are you grumpy?

A. At age 78, yes, in many ways. Some things about current society irritate me, such as the adulation of celebrities and the inflation of heroism.

Collins' official astronaut photo. Credit: NASA
Collins' official astronaut photo. Credit: NASA

Q. But aren’t you both?

A. Not me. Neither.

Heroes abound, and should be revered as such, but don’t count astronauts among them. We work very hard; we did our jobs to near perfection, but that was what we had hired on to do. In no way did we meet the criterion of the Congressional Medal of Honor: ‘above and beyond the call of duty.’

Celebrities? What nonsense, what an empty concept for a person to be, as my friend the great historian Daniel Boorstin put it, “known for his well-known-ness.” How many live-ins, how many trips to rehab, maybe–wow–you could even get arrested and then you would really be noticed. Don’t get me started.

Q. So, if I wanted to sum you up, I should say “grumpy?”

A. No, no, lucky! Usually, you find yourself either too young or too old to do what you really want, but consider: Neil Armstrong was born in 1930, Buzz Aldrin 1930, and Mike Collins 1930. We came along at exactly the right time. We survived hazardous careers and we were successful in them. But in my own case at least, it was 10 percent shrewd planning and 90 percent blind luck. Put LUCKY on my tombstone.

Q. Okay, but getting back to the space program. What’s next?

A. I hope Mars. It was my favorite planet as a kid and still is. As celestial bodies go, the moon is not a particularly interesting place, but Mars is. It is the closest thing to a sister planet that we have found so far. I worry that at NASA’s creeping pace, with the emphasis on returning to the moon, Mars may be receding into the distance. That’s about all I have to say.

Q. I understand you have become a recluse.

A. I’m not sure that’s the word. I think of the Brown Recluse, the deadliest of spiders, and I have a suntan, so perhaps. Anyway, it’s true I’ve never enjoyed the spotlight, don’t know why, maybe it ties in with the celebrity thing.

Q. So, how do you spend your time?

A. Running, biking, swimming, fishing, painting, cooking, reading, worrying about the stock market, searching for a really good bottle of cabernet under ten dollars. Moderately busy.

Q. No TV?

A. A few nature programs, and the Washington Redskins, that’s about it.

Q. Do you feel you’ve gotten enough recognition for your accomplishments?

A. Lordy, yes, Oodles and oodles.

Q. Oodles?? But don’t you have any keen insights?

A. Oh yeah, a whole bunch, but I’m saving them for the 50th.

For more information about Michael Collins, read his books (Carrying the Fire, Flying to the Moon)or check out his official NASA astronaut biography.

Source: Michael Collins, via NASA

Listen to Apollo 11 Conversations the Earth Didn’t Hear

Buzz Aldrin during the Apollo 11 mission. Credit: NASA

The whole world watched as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin descended to the surface of the Moon. Everyone listened intently to every word said between the Eagle lander and mission control. But what did Neil and Buzz say to each other when the microphone was off? Now you can find out. NASA has made the onboard audio tapes available online, so everyone can listen in the what happened inside the spacecraft. These are not necessarily major milestones of the mission but are some of the more interesting and clearly recorded conversations the crew members had among themselves as the mission progressed.

For example, here’s one exchange between Armstrong and Aldrin:

“I would appreciate if you could … see if you could … find the map …”

“Trade you that for a piece of gum. There it is.”

Find the Apollo 11 audio highlights here.

And here’s the Apollo 11 onboard voice transcription.

All of the Apollo spacecraft included onboard voice recorders, activated during much of each mission to record the crew’s conversations. The transcripts of those recordings were publicly released in the mid-1970s and they have been posted on the Internet for years. But only recently were the actual onboard recordings from Apollo 11 digitized so that the recordings could be made available on the Internet.

The Apollo 11 Onboard Audio Tape Database cross references the tape numbers to the Mission Elapsed Time (MET) that was on each tape. The database includes a description of the mission status at that time. It is best to listen to the tapes while simultaneously viewing the same mission elapsed time on the transcript, since often the recordings are faint.

Source: NASA

Build Your Own Apollo 11 Landing Computer

Apollo-style computer. Credit: Galaxiki


I’m classifying this one under “Extreme Geek.” But very cool Extreme Geek.

Remember the computer on the Apollo 11 Eagle lander that kept reporting “1201” and “1202” alarms as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin approached landing on the Moon? Well, now you can have one of your very own. Software engineer John Pultorak worked 4 years to build a replica of the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC), just so he could have one. And then he wrote a complete manual and put it online so that anyone else with similar aspirations wouldn’t have to go through the same painstaking research as he did. The manual is available free, but Pultorak says he spent about $3,000 for the hardware.

The 1,000 page documentation includes detailed descriptions and all schematics of the computer. You can find them all posted on Galaxiki, downloadable in pdf. format (the files are large).

During the first moon landing, the AGC guided Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin towards a large crater with huge boulders around it. Knowing he didn’t want to land there, Armstrong took manual control of the lunar module while Aldrin called out data from the radar and computer, guiding the Eagle to a safe landing with about 30 seconds of fuel left.

Even with that inauspicious beginning, the AGC did its job for the Apollo missions, and did it well. It had to control a 13,000 kg spaceship, orbiting at 3,500 kilometers per hour around the moon, land it safely within meters of a specified location and guide it back from the surface to rendezvous with a command ship in lunar orbit. The system had to minimize fuel consumption because the spacecraft only contained enough fuel for one landing attempt.

The original Apollo AGC cost over $150,000. It didn’t have a disk drive to store any software, and only 74 kilobytes of memory that had been literally hard-wired, and all of 4 Kb of something that is sort of like RAM.

It was developed by the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory and it a pretty amazing piece of hardware in the 1960s, as it was the first computer to use integrated circuits. The AGC mutlitasking operating system was called the EXEC, it was capable of executing up to 8 jobs at a time. The user interface unit was called the DSKY (display/keyboard, pronounced “disky”); an array of numerals and a calculator-style keyboard used by the astronauts to communicate with the computer.

Each Apollo mission featured two AGC computers – one in the Apollo Command Module and one in the Apollo Lunar Module.

Reportedly, Aldrin later said he kept the guidance system on while the descent radar was also on. The computer wasn’t designed for that amount of simultaneous input from both systems, which was why the alarms kept going off. But Aldrin’s reasoning was if the descent had to be aborted he didn’t want to have to turn on the guidance while they were doing their abort rocket burn to escape from crashing. As the story goes, while the alarms were going off, computer engineer Jack Garman told guidance officer Steve Bales in mission control it was safe to continue the descent and this was relayed to the crew. Garman remembered the 1201 and 1202 alarms occurring during one of the hundreds of simulations the team performed in preparation of the Apollo 11 mission, and knew it would be OK to continue.

The rest is history. And now you can build yourself a little piece of it.

Sources: Galaxiki, Apollo 11 Wikipedia

Explore Tranquility Base With New Interactive Apollo 11 Feature

Apollo 11 landing site on Tranquility Base. Credit: NASA

Where were you on July 20, 1969? If you don’t remember or weren’t born yet you can re-live the first walk on the Moon with a new interactive feature on NASA’s website. Listen to the audio, pan and explore the landing site, and go inside the Eagle lunar lander (not a lot of room in there!). Looking around Tranquility Base with the pan feature is a little counter-intuitive (opposite of what you do on Google Maps) but fun, nonetheless.

Look for lots of other fun ways to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 during the next couple of weeks. Google and NASA announced they will be unveiling something exciting on July 20, and word on the street is that it will be Google Moon in 3-D, made possible in part by the newly arrived Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.