Marlene Gantt

Marlene Gantt

When the Apollo 11 astronauts returned from their historic trip to the moon 50 years ago, a series of scientific tests and experiments was launched.

Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin and Michael Collins, the astronauts who participated in the moon landing on July 20, 1969, were quarantined for 21 days after returning to Earth. An Airstream trailer was used for the quarantine.

Birds, shellfish, rodents, insects, and fish were also quarantined and studied. Then on Aug. 1, The Daily Dispatch reported two men outside the quarantine were exposed to moon dust.

“Two men were exposed to moon dust late Thursday night when a glove extending into a vacuum chamber broke at America’s lunar quarantine station, officials said today,” The Daily Dispatch reported. “The pair, Ronald Buffum and George Williams, were forced to strip, shower for two hours and place themselves in quarantine with the three Apollo 11 astronauts.”

Officials said Buffum was wearing the glove when it sprang a leak, causing a high rush of air into the vacuum chamber. Williams had to help Buffum remove his hand from the chamber. They got his hand out and sealed the chamber to prevent air leaks.

They were sent to shower for two hours while officials decided if they had been contaminated. No conclusion was reached, so the men were placed in quarantine with the astronauts. Blood samples were taken from the men.

Officials said it was unknown how much degradation two samples in the vacuum chamber received.

On Aug. 4, scientists began deliberately sacrificing 24 mice that had been inoculated with moon dirt the prior week. Autopsies were planned. The astronauts always asked how the rodents were doing. That was because if the rodents did well, the men in quarantine would be released on time.

NASA had chosen several different species to be tested with moon dust. Birds were represented by the Japanese quail; brown shrimp, pink shrimp and oysters were used to represent shellfish; houseflies and moths joined cockroaches to represent insects; guppies and minnows were used to represent fish.

They all received moon dust in varied ways. The quail and mice received injections. Moon dust was added to the water for the aquatic species. Insects had lunar samples mixed into their food. The only species to die were the oysters. Scientists believed that had to do with them being tested during mating season.

Astronauts collected 22 kilograms of material from the moon, including 50 rocks, samples of the fine-grained lunar “soil,” and two core tubes that included material from up to 13 centimeters below the moon’s surface.

Two rock types brought back were basaits and braccias. Basaits are rocks solidified from molten lava. On Earth, basaits are a common type of volcanic rock and are found in places such as Hawaii. Basaits are dark gray in color. When one looks at the moon in the night sky, the dark areas are basaits.

Braccias are composed of fragments of older rocks. Over a long history, the moon has been bombarded by countless meteorites. These impacts have broken many rocks into small fragments. The heat and pressure of such impacts sometimes fuses small rock fragments into new rocks, call braccias.

Over the years, the seals on vacuum-packed bottles containing moon specimens have deteriorated. Air has slowly leaked into the bottles. Every sample brought back from the moon has been contaminated by Earth’s air and humidity according to Wikipedia.

Moon dust-contaminated items finally became available to the public in 2014 when the U.S. government approved the sale of private material owned and collected by astronauts. In 2017, lunar soil collected by Neil Armstrong was put up for auction.

Marlene Gantt of Port Byron is a retired Rock Island teacher.


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