Life after launch: Inside the massive effort to preserve NASA’s space artifacts

NASA

There are bits and bobs from the Apollo 11 mission spread all across the country and beyond. Michael Collins’ training suit is at the Cosmosphere in Kansas. The Harvard Library has the astronauts’ star chart. Lunar samples the trio brought home are flung far and wide. There are places, too, where one can go to see the concrete, metal, and brick built to launch spacecraft into orbit — the infrastructure for the interstellar-bound.

When NASA was participating in the Space Race, trying to meet John F. Kennedy’s goal of reaching the moon within a decade, it was trying to build new equipment that could survive space but not necessarily time. It didn’t know that if it succeeded in putting someone on the moon, the world would want to see even the detritus of the attempt. As the organization pushed forward, archaeologists, historians, and enthusiasts have tried keep up, scooping up and preserving what artifacts and sites they can.

The dustbin of history

The Apollo 11 astronauts — Michael Collins, Neil Armstrong, and Buzz Aldrin — didn’t just bring moon dust home in bags for testing. It stayed on their gloves and was particularly difficult to scrape out from under their fingernails. The moon dust, a powdery mix of brownish-grayish sand and silt, clung to everything it touched. The more times an astronaut stepped on the surface of the moon, the more discolored their suits and boots became. When they tried to brush it off, the lunar particles left a stain. Sometimes the slippery moon rocks caused them to trip, but their flexible, well-designed suits allowed them to get back up again.

Once they returned to the spacecraft and took off their helmets, they realized the dust had a strong odor, too. But the astronauts weren’t just concerned about the grime and odor. There was no way of knowing if an unknown space germ was hitching a ride to Earth on the return journey.

When Apollo 11 landed back home, the astronauts were quarantined. Scientists injected mice with their blood to make sure it was safe to let the trio back amongst civilization. The interior of the command module was decontaminated with formaldehyde. It’s possible the spacesuits were sent off for dry cleaning. The Smithsonian has a copy of a letter from the conservation staff recommending it as typical treatment for its garments. “What we don’t have is a receipt from a dry cleaner,” said Dr. Cathleen Lewis, a curator in the Space History Department at the National Air and Space Museum. “Neither do we have any dry cleaner either in Houston or in the Wilmington area, in Delaware, claiming to have dry cleaned Neil Armstrong’s suit.”

Once the Smithsonian received Armstrong’s suit, it wasn’t quite sure what to do with it beyond sticking it on a mannequin and protecting it from sticky fingers and harsh light. But the fireproof suit, built to withstand wild temperature swings, seemed like it should be indestructible. “We made a lot of assumptions that it would it would last here on Earth, since it had lasted out in space,” said Lewis.

But NASA hadn’t expected the suit to last decades into the future. When it was designed and stitched by the International Latex Corporation, parts of it, like the rubber cooling undersuit, were expected to start deteriorating in six months. ILC (now Playtex) was used to manufacturing bras and girdles, but the spacesuits included a variety of materials, three separate garments, and 21 layers. A new fireproof fabric — a Teflon-coated fiberglass material called “beta cloth” — made up the outer layer. It still had to be flexible and foldable, durable but able to fit through a slow-moving sewing machine. With the attached life support, the suit could even become a wearable spacecraft.

After Armstrong’s spacesuit had been on display for more than 30 years, Smithsonian curator Lisa Young started to notice some issues. The rubber, slowly off-gassing hydrochloric acid over the years, was affecting other materials. The brass zipper, leached of copper, turned green. The rubber itself was brittle. To stop the deterioration in its tracks, she removed the suit from display and put it in a moderately cool, low-humidity storage room. It wouldn’t go back on display for 13 years.

In the interim, The Smithsonian launched a Kickstarter in an effort to “reboot the suit.” The museum exceeded its goal of $500,000 and was able to digitize the suit. Experts used a variety of techniques to capture the various components. The surface was scanned with an arm-mounted laser, while a CT scan picked up the interior. Photogrammetry and structured light scanning added color information and details about the 3D structure.

Smithsonian 3D Program

The Kickstarter backers also helped fund a new display case for Armstrong’s suit. It will be temperature-and-humidity controlled, like the storage room. A specially built structure will hold up the suit, while also providing necessary airflow to prevent decomposition. The structure also acts like a mannequin. “People will be able to see Neil Armstrong’s space suit in as close a configuration as possible to how he wore it when he was on the surface of the moon,” said Lewis.

Because of its size (80 pounds), recognizability, and what it represents (a technological marvel for its time), Armstrong’s space suit is one of Apollo 11’s most iconic artifacts. After Armstrong died in 2012, his widow found a bag full of miscellaneous items from his trip to the moon. “There are probably many closets out there with these identical bags — objects, mementos that the astronauts did bring back with them,” said Lewis. At first, NASA wanted these astronauts’ souvenirs back, but Congress passed a law in 2012 giving Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo crew members the right to hold onto them.

Abandon in place

NASA isn’t as sentimental about everything associated with its space missions. Take the sites of spaceship launches, testing, and training, for example.

In 2004, technicians climbed to the top of the Kennedy Space Center’s Vehicle Assembly Building, hoping to assess the damage from Hurricane Florence. They quickly left, fearing they’d fall through the sopping roof. Located on Florida’s Merritt Island, the VAB is no stranger to fierce storms, corrosive salt, and punishing wind. It’s one of the largest buildings in the world by area, and it’s the building where the Saturn V was prepared for launch. Completed in 1966, the VAB has gone through several updates.

Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) NASA

The VAB encapsulates NASA’s attitude toward many of the buildings it’s used for the space program. “At no point has NASA made any attempt to preserve the VAB as a historic site,” wrote Roger Launius, former chief historian of NASA. “It is a working location that looks from the outside much as it did when first erected in the 1960s.” NASA’s real estate is large, spread out, and — especially in the salt air Florida locations — expensive to maintain. In some cases, there are toxic chemicals in need of cleanup.

NASA made the post-hurricane repairs on the VAB, but other structures have been left to the elements. Across the Banana River, at Cape Canaveral, is Launch Complex 34. It’s the site of the Apollo 1 fire, which killed astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee in 1967. It was decommissioned and disassembled, leaving only the rust-covered launch structure and pad. “Remember them not for how they died but for those ideals for which they lived,” reads one plaque at the site. Though it’s a National Historic Monument, “Abandon in place” is written on one of its sides, meaning it’s supposed to be left unmaintained. (“The great hearthplace stands cold, its Phoenix dead,” Ray Bradbury wrote of the site.)

A digital trace

With her team at the Digital Heritage and Humanities Collections at the University of South Florida, Dr. Lori Collins is using 3D laser scanning and imaging to preserve LC34 and other sites and structures on the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS). The scans are used to create 3D images you can spin around and look at from every angle.

To document the launch complexes, they’re working against human-made and environmental factors. The launches themselves could deliver a beating to the buildings, and the same weather degrading sites at the Kennedy Space Center are having an effect at Cape Canaveral. Plus, NASA had an impact as well.

“Some of them are being reused and changed or modified, even, as part of the space landscape today,” said Collins. “So part of our job is to record the ‘as built’ design the way it is today, in the state that is in, capturing that exactly.” The goals of the project include helping site managers pinpoint areas that require conservation, sorting out original features from later additions, and tracking changes from erosion. The team has seen the effects of hurricanes and erosion in its four years of surveying and resurveying the sites.

CCAFS is so large that it can be difficult to take in from the ground. “With even more remotely sensed data, like aerial imagery and airborne LIDAR data sets, that allows us to see huge landscapes — in fact the whole Cape Canaveral base itself as part of the larger landscape,” said Collins. Because some structures and components have been torn down or moved since the Apollo days, DHHC’s work can help piece together how the base used to look. “We’re able to kind of reconstruct the footprint of where those buildings and things might have been based on the very subtle change in topography,” she said.

If a hurricane were to damage LC14, the launch site for John Glenn’s first orbit, Collins’ imaging could act as a foundation for repair and reconstruction. But it can also help prevent the slower deterioration that’s currently erasing some of the launch complexes. “Some of these sites are getting longer life because we’re able to use the same data for engineering and stabilization activities to make sure that we preserve these sites that are important not only nationally but internationally, globally,” she said.

Launch Complex 14, 1963

Even designation as a National Historic Landmark can’t save NASA buildings, though. In 2010, the organization began dismantling the Langley Research Center’s wind tunnel, which was built in 1929. NASA did document and preserve the building, including its NHL plaque. Meanwhile, another historic landmark at Langley, the Lunar Landing Research Facility, was also listed for demolition. It was at this facility that Aldrin and Armstrong trained in a simulated lunar environment. Instead, it reopened with small modifications as the Landing and Impact Research Facility in 2005.

“NASA and the Air Force — especially the Air Force — simply have no historical consciousness”

Though the images of astronauts dangling sidewise to walk on the moon may be familiar to space buffs, not everyone realizes that facilities in Ohio, Virginia, and Arizona all contributed to exploration. “Sometimes people don’t get as excited about rocket launch complexes as they might about megalithic barrows in Great Britain,” said Dr. Beth O’Leary, professor emerita at the University of New Mexico. She’s one of the authors of The Final Mission: Preserving NASA’s Apollo Sites.

Some have criticized NASA’s handling of its own history. “It has always been a challenge to balance historic preservation with reuse of facilities, but NASA began a campaign in the early 1980s to enjoy the benefits of recognition without the requirements of maintaining facilities in line with the law,” according to Launius. In 1987, its administrator even asked to have the facilities de-designated as historical landmarks. Dr. Harry Butowsky agrees NASA would rather have a building that works for its needs now than preserve history from decades ago. In the 1980s, he wrote the reports for the National Parks Services, outlining which space-related sites should receive historical designation. Both NASA and the U.S. Air Force were uncooperative, he told The Houston Chronicle in 2017. “NASA and the Air Force — especially the Air Force — simply have no historical consciousness,” he says. “They’re only interested in the future, and what they’re going to do. They have no interest in their history at all.”

Matching the paint colors

At the Kennedy Space Center, some buildings are historically significant for the Apollo missions, some for the space shuttle program, and some for both. There are structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places while others are simply eligible for the list, but NASA cultural resource specialist Natasha Darre said they’re all treated the same. Under the National Historic Preservation Act, NASA must  “seek ways to avoid, minimize or mitigate” adverse effects to the buildings, whether it’s making minor repairs or doing major remodeling. 

Even efforts to protect a structure have to meet these guidelines. After cleaning the corrosion caused by Florida’s salty water and air, workers have to go back and repaint. “You have to match the color of the paint exactly,” said Jeanne Ryba, another NASA cultural resource specialist. “So that’s how they protect the historic value of it.” 

NASA

As NASA has transitioned from the space shuttle program to the space launch system, some buildings have undergone significant alterations or been demolished. When that happens, NASA must go through a historic recordation process, ensuring the as-built drawings, plans, and archival-quality photos are sent to the Library of Congress. Also included in the file is a description of the building, including who constructed it and how it was used. 

Darre thinks NASA is doing more now to emphasize its history than it has in the past. Kennedy’s Visitor Complex gives tours of some of the important sites. A few years ago, KSC published a historic property booklet, showing the different buildings still standing as well as those that have been demolished. It lists details like square footage and gives historical context for each. “There is a lot of focus on the future,” said Darre, “but I think there’s a good emphasis on also preserving the past and trying to work with it as we move forward into this multi-use space port and an exciting future.” 

The Moon and Antarctica

When Apollo 11 lifted off from the moon, Aldrin noticed the flag, which had taken him and Armstrong a while to put up. “There was no time to sightsee,” Aldrin wrote in his book Return to Earth. “I was concentrating intently on the computers, and Neil was studying the attitude indicator, but I looked up long enough to see the flag fall over.” In 2012, images from  NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) showed the five other flags Americans had planted casting shadows but not the one at the Apollo 11 site.

Though the LROC photos aren’t detailed enough to make out a flag in the dust, and while they show lunar rover tracks, you can’t see footprints. That doesn’t mean they aren’t still there.

The Moon’s lack of wind and rain means the prints should probably be fairly pristine — for now. No human has set foot on the lunar surface since 1972, but uncrewed objects from the former Soviet Union, Japan, India, China, and Israel are all up there. As space becomes busier, there’s a bigger risk to the artifacts from all these missions. “You could land anywhere on the moon. There’s no gates,” said O’Leary. When Apollo 12 landed within 200 meters of the Surveyor 3 in November 1969, it ended up damaging the uncrewed craft with flying debris. Since then, landings and crashes have kept a respectful distance from other sites.

NASA

“In a sense, there’s social sanction,” said O’Leary. “Nobody wants to be the nation or the commercial group that lands in the middle of the Apollo 12 site or crashes into or affects the foot trail from 17.”

In 2011, NASA published recommendations for space-faring entities, suggesting certain areas be treated as no-fly zones and limiting how close ground travelers could get to Apollo 11 and 17 sites. As these are just guidelines, there are no legal ramifications for violating them. A new Senate bill introduced in May, the One Small Step to Protect Human Heritage in Space Act, would require U.S. companies to follow NASA’s guidelines.

It took experts 10 years to restore the huts of Antarctic explorers Robert Scott and Earnest Shackleton. Crates of whiskey, rancid butter, and thousands of other artifacts were found in deteriorating structures. Antarctica is often cited when discussing space protection, because there are treaties for both when it comes to sovereignty. In fact, Antarctica’s treaty was a model for the Outer Space Treaty. Among its principles is that nations can’t claim celestial bodies as their own. (Remember that the next time someone promises you the moon and stars.)

But the treaty doesn’t cover everything the Apollo 11 crew left up there. While the empty food bags, urine collection devices, gold olive branch, and Apollo 1 patch that were all left at the site belong to the U.S., it gets trickier with the footprints. The image of the treaded boot print is well-known, but those impressions and the rover tracks “fall within this huge gap in international law,” said Michelle Hanlon, co-founder of For All Moonkind, a nonprofit trying to protect space heritage sites. Point being: The U.S. can’t own the ground Armstrong and Aldrin walked upon.

Hanlon thinks a new international treaty needs to go into effect to protect not just the U.S. sites but other countries’ as well. She’s not advocating for necessarily leaving Alan Shepard’s golf balls in place, but she’d like them documented before they’re studied or put on display somewhere. “We need to go back to these sites before they’re destroyed or otherwise — vandalized is too strong a word — but intentionally or unintentionally disturbed, because they will tell the real story,” she said.

Anthropologist PJ Capelotti has suggested putting a dome over the Apollo sites to protect from the extreme temperatures and solar radiation. Visitors could access the structure via pathways dotted with information panels and life-support stations. This extreme theme park could be interpreted as the U.S. staking a claim, unless it was created with international cooperation.

Hanlon thinks at the very least there should be common landing pads so there’s not a repeat of the Surveyor 3 damage. “If we can agree on preservation in space, that’s a first step to figuring out how to deal with other things in space that need to be sorted out,” she said. That includes concerns about mining the moon.

As the next phase of space exploration continues, with private companies launching their own rockets, it’s unclear how much these new players are documenting their own potentially history-making efforts. When O’Leary was trying to put together a catalog of artifacts on the moon, she went to NASA. “We thought NASA would just pull a list out of a drawer and say, ‘Well here it is. We know everything.’ And they didn’t,” she said.

NASA’s missing or redacted documentation has proved challenging for researchers looking to find information about African Americans, Latinos, and other minorities involved in the space program.

When the Smithsonian put Armstrong’s spacesuit on display in 1976, “the Apollo program [was] still a very current event for Americans,” said Lewis. Yet the museum knew it was a moment worth holding onto.

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