The Apollo Astronaut Who Was Allergic to the Moon

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
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.

Life on Nearby Exoplanet Barnard's Star B Might Be Possible, According to Astronomers

iStock.com/PavelSmilyk
iStock.com/PavelSmilyk

Despite contradictory statements from UFO eyewitnesses, we have yet to confirm the presence of intelligent life beyond Earth. But astronomers continue to flirt with that hope. The most recent speculation comes from Barnard’s Star, the second-closest star system to Earth, which is circled by a frozen super-Earth dubbed Barnard's Star b. While its surface might be as cold as -274°F, there may just be potential for life.

According to CNET, the chilly Barnard's Star b—located 6 light years away from Earth—could still be hospitable to living organisms. Astrophysicists at Villanova University speculate the planet could have a hot liquid-iron core that produces geothermal energy. That warmth might support primitive life under the icy surface. A similar situation could possibly occur on Jupiter’s moon, Europa, where tidal heating might allow for subsurface oceans containing living things.

Barnard's Star b has a mass just over three times that of Earth. The conclusions about potential life were drawn by Villanova researchers from 15 years of photometry examination of the solar system [PDF].

“The most significant aspect of the discovery of Barnard’s star b is that the two nearest star systems to the Sun are now known to host planets,” Scott Engle, a Villanova astrophysicist, said in a statement. “This supports previous studies based on Kepler Mission data, inferring that planets can be very common throughout the galaxy, even numbering in the tens of billions. Also, Barnard’s Star is about twice as old as the Sun—about 9 billion years old compared to 4.6 billion years for the Sun. The universe has been producing Earth-size planets far longer than we, or even the Sun itself, have existed.”

Scientists hope to learn more about the potential for life on Barnard's Star b as new, more powerful telescopes are put into use. NASA’s delayed James Webb Space Telescope could be one such solution. Its 21-foot mirror—three times the size of the Hubble—is set to open in 2021.

[h/t CNET]

15 Fantastic Buzz Aldrin Quotes

Christopher Polk, Getty Images
Christopher Polk, Getty Images

Buzz Aldrin—born Edwin Eugene Aldrin Jr. on January 20, 1930—celebrates his 89th birthday this year. The fighter pilot-turned-astronaut flew on Apollo 11 and became one of the first people to set foot on the Moon (and was one of just 12 to do so). Over the course of his life, Aldrin has learned a lot, and he’s shared his wisdom in a number of books and interviews. Here are a few of his most awesome and inspirational quotes.

1. “From the distance of the Moon, Earth was four times the size of a full moon seen from Earth. It was a brilliant jewel in the black velvet sky. Yet it was still at a great distance, considering the challenges of the voyage home.” —From an interview with Scholastic

2. “‘Where are the billions and billions and billions of people, on what I'm looking at? We're the only three that are not back there.' And we didn't get to celebrate. Because we were out of town.” —On what he was thinking as he looked back at Earth from the Moon, from a Reddit AMA

An image of astronaut Buzz Aldrin standing on the Moon.
NASA/Getty Images

3. “Some people don’t like to admit that they have failed or that they have not yet achieved their goals or lived up to their own expectations. But failure is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign that you are alive and growing.” —From the book No Dream is Too High

4. “As the senior crew member, it was appropriate for [Neil Armstrong] to be the first. But after years and years of being asked to speak to a group of people and then be introduced as the second man on the Moon, it does get a little frustrating. Is it really necessary to point out to the crowd that somebody else was first when we all went through the same training, we all landed at the same time and all contributed? But for the rest of my life I'll always be identified as the second man to walk on the Moon. [Laughs.]” —From an interview with National Geographic

5. “Resilience is what humans have and resilience is what humans need to take advantage of—their ability to explore and to understand and then to react positively and with motivation, not as a defeatist, to the constant flow of challenges. Negativity doesn’t get anybody anywhere. It takes reacting to all of life in a positive way to make the most out of what you’ve experienced and to make a better life and a better world.” —From an interview with Biography.com

6. “The urge to explore has propelled evolution since the first water creatures reconnoitered the land. Like all living systems, cultures cannot remain static; they evolve or decline. They explore or expire.” —From a 1999 article in the Albuquerque Tribune

An image of the Apollo 11 astronauts getting out of their lunar vehicle into a boat on the ocean.
NASA/Newsmakers/Getty Images

7. “There's a tremendously satisfying freedom associated with weightlessness. It's challenging in the absence of traction or leverage, and it requires thoughtful readjustment. I found the experience of weightlessness to be one of the most fun and enjoyable, challenging and rewarding, experiences of spaceflight. Returning to Earth brings with it a great sense of heaviness, and a need for careful movement. In some ways it's not too different from returning from a rocking ocean ship.” —From an interview with Scholastic

8. “It certainly didn't make me feel lonely, except to realize that we were as far away as people had ever been. Once we were on the surface of the Moon we could look back and see the Earth, a little blue dot in the sky. We are a very small part of the solar system and the whole universe. The sky was black as could be, and the horizon was so well defined as it curved many miles away from us into space.” —From an interview with National Geographic

An image of Buzz Aldrin's boot and footprint on the Moon.
Keystone/Getty Images

9. “I know the sky is not the limit, because there are footprints on the Moon—and I made some of them! So don’t allow anyone to denigrate or inhibit your lofty aspirations. Your dream can take you might higher and much farther than anyone ever thought possible! I know mine did.” —From the book No Dream Is Too High

10. “Take a good, long, honest, positive look at what good can come out of every situation you’re in. Wherever you are, that’s where you are. You’re there with it. This is your history you’re living right now. So do what you can to make the most of what comes along. And please, don’t try to do everything on your own. There are a lot of people out there in the universe who wish you well and want to be your friend. Let them help you. You don’t have to carry it all on your own.” —From an interview with Biography.com

11. “Your mind is like a parachute: If it isn’t open, it doesn’t work.” —From the book No Dream Is Too High

12. “I prefer the soft singing voice of Karen Carpenter. I have heard Frank Sinatra sing 'Fly Me to the Moon' almost too many times. So I'm interested in composing a new song, entitled "Get Your Ass to Mars!" —From a Reddit AMA

13. “Fear paralyzes in many ways, but especially if it keeps you from responding wisely and intelligently to challenges. The only way to overcome your fears is to face them head-on.” —From the book No Dream Is Too High

An image of Buzz Aldrin performing an experiment on the Moon.
NASA/Newsmakers/Getty Images

14. “My first words of my impression of being on the surface of the Moon that just came to my mind was ‘magnificent desolation’. [...] there is no place on Earth as desolate as what I was viewing in those first moments on the lunar surface. Because I realized what I was looking at, towards the horizon and in every direction, had not changed in hundreds, thousands of years. Beyond me I could see the Moon curving away—no atmosphere, black sky. Cold. Colder than anyone could experience on Earth when the Sun is up […] No sign of life whatsoever. That is desolate. More desolate than any place on Earth.” —From a Reddit AMA

15. “Choose your heroes wisely, and be careful who you idolize. Why? Simple: you will become like the people with whom you most often associate.” —From the book No Dream Is Too High

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