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The Apollo Astronaut Who Was Allergic to the Moon

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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The inside of Apollo 17’s lunar module smelled of gunpowder. It was December 1972, the last of NASA’s manned moon missions, and astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison “Jack” Schmitt had just finished a successful survey of the Valley of Taurus-Littrow, a spot on the southeastern “coast” of the Moon’s Sea of Serenity. They had returned to the landing module with their spacesuits caked in moondust.

The men brushed themselves off and removed their helmets. Suddenly, Schmitt began having a sneezing fit. His eyes reddened. His throat itched. His sinuses clogged.

“I didn’t know I had lunar dust hay fever,” Schmitt said. Listening in, men stationed back on Earth began to bust Schmitt’s chops over the radio transmission. “It’s funny they don’t check for that,” said Joseph Allen at Mission Control. “Maybe that’s the trouble with the cheap noses, Jack.”

Schmitt, it turns out, was basically allergic to the Moon.

NASA

Of all the difficulties involved with putting a man on the Moon, “the major issue the Apollo astronauts pointed out was dust, dust, dust,” Larry Taylor, director of the Planetary Geosciences Institute, said in an interview with the Soil Science Society of America. The Apollo 11 astronauts griped that the “particles covered everything and a stain remained even after our best attempts to brush it off.” An Apollo 12 crew member moaned that the lunar module “had so much dust that when I took my helmet off, I was almost blinded.”

Moondust may look soft and pillowy, but it’s actually sharp and abrasive, largely the detritus of micrometeorite impacts. With no wind or moving water on the Moon’s surface, moondust never erodes. Effectively, no natural process exists on the lunar surface that can round its edges. When astronauts inhale what is essentially finely powdered glass, it becomes a huge health hazard [PDF]: The powder is so jagged that a deep breath could cause it to lodge in the lungs and pierce the alveolar sacs and ducts [PDF], resulting in a lunar version of “stone-grinder’s disease,” or silicosis, a deadly condition that commonly killed coal miners (and still kills 100 Americans a year). To complicate matters, lunar dust also contains a lot of iron—and this iron-laden dust has recently been implicated in hypertension among Apollo astronauts [PDF].

Reports of moondust misadventures from previous Apollo missions never deterred Harrison Schmitt. After all, the Harvard-educated geologist had dedicated the better part of a decade to studying the Moon’s landscape. Working for the U.S. Geological Survey’s astrogeology department, he used telescope photos to map the Moon and planets. So when the NASA asked if any scientists were interested in visiting space, Schmitt hardly hesitated. “I thought about 10 seconds and raised my hand and volunteered,” he said in a 1999 oral history project with NASA.

No astronaut knew more about lunar geology than Schmitt. Previously, every other Apollo flyboy had had a background as a military pilot. Schmitt was the first, and only, professional scientist to walk on the Moon. As a result, the press didn’t romanticize or hype the geologist astronaut. The New York Times described the 37-year-old as a “quiet, serious bachelor who does not own a television set or a stereo.” As he trained to go to the Moon, completing a 53-week flight training course and logging 2100 hours of flying time, the scientist never imagined that he would wind up being allergic to the lunar dust and rocks he had spent years studying from afar.

Schmitt in the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) during the third Apollo 17 extravehicular activity (EVA) at the Taurus-Littrow landing site. Image Credit: Getty Images

 

In December 1972, Schmitt landed in the Moon’s Valley of Taurus-Littrow, surrounded by mountains and endless stretches of moondust. During their first moonwalk, the lunar roving vehicle lost a fender. The tires spun, and the rover kicked up a cloud of dust.

The sediment got lodged in every wrinkle, fold, nook, and cranny of Schmitt’s spacesuit. The dust “gummed up the joints” of his suit so badly that he had trouble moving his arms. The powder chewed up his footwear, too. “The dust was so abrasive that it actually wore through three layers of Kevlar-like material on Jack’s boot,” Taylor said.

When the astronauts returned to the lunar module, it took forever to brush the dust off. Schmitt later complained [PDF] of “a lot of irritation to my sinuses and nostrils soon after taking the helmet off ... the dust really bothered my eyes and throat. I was tasting it and eating it.” The symptoms lasted for about two hours. His condition was consistent with the findings of Dr. Bill Carpentier, a NASA doctor who had evidence suggesting the dust could cause allergic responses [PDF].

Schmitt's pesky moon allergies couldn't stop his true grit. Thanks to his background as a geologist, Apollo 17 collected more rock samples than any other mission. One sample, the 4.2-billion-year-old hunk of rubble called “Troctolite 76535,” later helped unlock secrets of the Moon’s magnetic field [PDF].

Schmitt also discovered bright orange beads of volcanic glass on the Moon’s surface. Not only did these samples prove that the Moon was once volcanically active, they also provided evidence that it contained water. And before they packed for home, Schmitt and his fellow Apollo 17 astronauts snapped a photo of Earth. Today, it’s one of the most iconic photographs of our home: the Blue Marble.

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U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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5 Things You Didn't Know About Sally Ride
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U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

You know Sally Ride as the first American woman to travel into space. But here are five things you might not know about the astronaut, who passed away five years ago today—on July 23, 2012—at the age of 61.

1. SHE PROVED THERE IS SUCH THING AS A STUPID QUESTION.

When Sally Ride made her first space flight in 1983, she was both the first American woman and the youngest American to make the journey to the final frontier. Both of those distinctions show just how qualified and devoted Ride was to her career, but they also opened her up to a slew of absurd questions from the media.

Journalist Michael Ryan recounted some of the sillier questions that had been posed to Ride in a June 1983 profile for People. Among the highlights:

Q: “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?”
A: “There’s no evidence of that.”

Q: “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?”
A: “How come nobody ever asks (a male fellow astronaut) those questions?"

Forget going into space; Ride’s most impressive achievement might have been maintaining her composure in the face of such offensive questions.

2. SHE MIGHT HAVE BEEN A TENNIS PRO.

When Ride was growing up near Los Angeles, she played more than a little tennis, and she was seriously good at it. She was a nationally ranked juniors player, and by the time she turned 18 in 1969, she was ranked 18th in the whole country. Tennis legend Billie Jean King personally encouraged Ride to turn pro, but she went to Swarthmore instead before eventually transferring to Stanford to finish her undergrad work, a master’s, and a PhD in physics.

King didn’t forget about the young tennis prodigy she had encouraged, though. In 1984 an interviewer playfully asked the tennis star who she’d take to the moon with her, to which King replied, “Tom Selleck, my family, and Sally Ride to get us all back.”

3. HOME ECONOMICS WAS NOT HER BEST SUBJECT.

After retiring from space flight, Ride became a vocal advocate for math and science education, particularly for girls. In 2001 she founded Sally Ride Science, a San Diego-based company that creates fun and interesting opportunities for elementary and middle school students to learn about math and science.

Though Ride was an iconic female scientist who earned her doctorate in physics, just like so many other youngsters, she did hit some academic road bumps when she was growing up. In a 2006 interview with USA Today, Ride revealed her weakest subject in school: a seventh-grade home economics class that all girls had to take. As Ride put it, "Can you imagine having to cook and eat tuna casserole at 8 a.m.?"

4. SHE HAD A STRONG TIE TO THE CHALLENGER.

Ride’s two space flights were aboard the doomed shuttle Challenger, and she was eight months deep into her training program for a third flight aboard the shuttle when it tragically exploded in 1986. Ride learned of that disaster at the worst possible time: she was on a plane when the pilot announced the news.

Ride later told AARP the Magazine that when she heard the midflight announcement, she got out her NASA badge and went to the cockpit so she could listen to radio reports about the fallen shuttle. The disaster meant that Ride wouldn’t make it back into space, but the personal toll was tough to swallow, too. Four of the lost members of Challenger’s crew had been in Ride’s astronaut training class.

5. SHE DIDN'T SELL OUT.

A 2003 profile in The New York Times called Ride one of the most famous women on Earth after her two space flights, and it was hard to argue with that statement. Ride could easily have cashed in on the slew of endorsements, movie deals, and ghostwritten book offers that came her way, but she passed on most opportunities to turn a quick buck.

Ride later made a few forays into publishing and endorsements, though. She wrote or co-wrote more than a half-dozen children’s books on scientific themes, including To Space and Back, and in 2009 she appeared in a print ad for Louis Vuitton. Even appearing in an ad wasn’t an effort to pad her bank account, though; the ad featured an Annie Leibovitz photo of Ride with fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell gazing at the moon and stars. According to a spokesperson, all three astronauts donated a “significant portion” of their modeling fees to Al Gore’s Climate Project.

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Remembering Comet Hale-Bopp's Unlikely Discovery
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Comet Hale-Bopp was a sensation in the mid-1990s. It was visible to the naked eye for 18 months, shattering a nine-month record previously set in 1811. It inspired a doomsday cult, wild late-night radio theories about extraterrestrials, and plenty of actual science. But a year before it became visible to normal observers, two men independently and simultaneously discovered it in a coincidence of astronomical proportions.

On the night of July 22-23, 1995, Alan Hale was engaged in his favorite hobby: looking at comets. It was the first clear night in his area for about 10 days, so he decided to haul out his telescope and see what he could see. In the driveway of his New Mexico home, he set up his Meade DS-16 telescope and located Periodic Comet Clark, a known comet. He planned to wait a few hours and observe another known comet (Periodic Comet d'Arrest) when it came into view. To kill time, he pointed his telescope at M70, a globular cluster in the Sagittarius system.

Comet Hale-Bopp streaks through a starry night sky.
Comet Hale-Bopp streaks through the sky over Merrit Island, Florida, south of Kennedy Space Center.
George Shelton // AFP // Getty Images

Hale was both an amateur astronomer and a professional. His interest in spotting comets was actually the amateur part, thought it would make his name famous. Hale's day jobs included stints at JPL in Pasadena and the Southwest Institute for Space Research in Cloudcroft, New Mexico. But that night, peering at M70, he wrote, "I immediately noticed a fuzzy object in the field that hadn't been there when I had looked at M70 two weeks earlier." He double-checked that he was looking in the right place, and then started to get excited.

In order to verify that the fuzzy object wasn't something astronomers already knew about, Hale consulted his deep-sky catalogues and also ran a computer search using the International Astronomical Union's computer at Harvard University. Convinced that he had found something new, Hale fired off an email very early on the morning of July 23 to the IAU's Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams, telling them what he had found, along with detailed instructions on how to verify it themselves. Hale also tracked the object as it moved, until it moved out of view. It was definitely a comet, and it was definitely new.

Meanwhile, Tom Bopp was in Arizona, also hunting for comets. At the time, Bopp was working at a construction materials company in Phoenix, but he was also an accomplished amateur astronomer, with decades of experience observing deep-sky objects. That night, Bopp vas visiting the remote Vekol Ranch, 90 miles south of Phoenix, known as a great location for dark-sky viewing. He was with a group of friends, which was important because Bopp didn't actually own a telescope.

The Bopp group looked through their various telescopes, observing all sorts of deep-sky objects late into the night. Bopp's friend Jim Stevens had set up his homemade 17.5-inch Dobsonian reflector telescope and made some observations. Stevens finished an observation, then left his telescope to consult a star atlas and figure out what to aim at next. While Stevens was occupied, Bopp peered into Stevens's telescope and saw a fuzzy object enter the field of view, near M70. He called his friends over to have a look.

The Bopp group proceeded to track the fuzzy object for several hours, just as Hale was doing over in New Mexico. By tracking its movement relative to background stars, they (like Hale) concluded that it was a comet. When the comet left his view, Bopp drove to a Western Union and sent a telegram to the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams. (For historical perspective, telegrams were extremely outdated in 1995, but technically they were still a thing.)

Brian Marsden at the Central Bureau received Bopp's telegram hours later, after getting a few followup emails from Hale with additional details. Comparing the times of discovery, Marsden realized that the two men had discovered the comet simultaneously. According to NASA, it was the farthest comet ever to be discovered by amateur astronomers—it was 7.15 Astronomical Units (AU) from our sun. That's 665 million miles. Not bad for a pair of amateurs, one using a homemade telescope!

The Central Bureau verified the findings and about 12 hours after the initial discovery, issued IAU Circular 6187, designating it C/1995 O1 Hale-Bopp. The circular read, in part: "All observers note the comet to be diffuse with some condensation and no tail, motion toward the west-northwest."

Four men smile, posing outdoors next to a large telescope at night.
Comet hunters (L to R): David Levy, Dr. Don Yeomans, Dr. Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp pose next to a telescope during a public viewing of the Hale-Bopp and Wild-2 comets.
Mike Nelson // AFP // Getty Images

Less than a year later, Comet Hale-Bopp came into plain view, and the rest is history. It was a thousand times brighter than Halley's Comet, which had caused a major stir in its most recent appearance in the 1980s. Comet Hale-Bopp will return, much like Halley's Comet, but it won't be until the year 4385. (And incidentally, it was previously visible circa 2200 BCE.)

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