The moon is a messy place

In which I discuss moon suits, moon dust, moon models, and moon stories

“Smells like someone just fired a carbine in here.”
– Apollo 17 Commander Gene Cernan on smelling moon dust inside the Lunar Module

I finally got around to making my 1/6th scale Gene Cernan figure look a little more realistic. Brand new, it looked like this:

Apollo 17 Commander Capt. Gene Cernan, the last man on the moon, in 1/6th scale

I never quite liked the pristine look of it because the only time it was that clean was the day it arrived from the manufacturer, ILC Dover, a division of Playtex at the time the suits were designed. Yes, Playtex designed the 21-layer Apollo suits. Here’s the figure after I applied a fair amount of graphite powder using two different brush sizes:

Now you may think I went a little over the top with that, but I didn’t. My variation is probably about what Cernan’s A7LB suit looked like after two of the three seven-hour moonwalks he and Jack Schmitt made. Below you can see what his suit looked like after their third and final moonwalk on 13 & 14 December 1972 – and this was after they spent quite a while brushing each other off before re-entering the Lunar Module for the last time.

Click for a larger version

The large brush they used for the suits – and the lunar rover – was six or seven inches wide. They also had a smaller brush for camera lenses and such. You can see both in this compilation. Gene Cernan raises his gold-plated visor here while cleaning the rover’s camera lens.

Moondust is funny stuff – fine, powdery, almost like snow, and it smells of burnt gunpowder when it’s on the moon. That smell goes away on prolonged contact with normal air, so the returned samples no longer smell of anything. They don’t really know why it smells like gunpowder, but there are some theories.

Excerpts from the Apollo 17 Technical Crew Debriefing [corrected link to PDF] on 4 January 1973, during which the problems with dust came up a lot:

“Dust – I think probably one of the most aggravating, restricting facets of lunar surface exploration is the dust and its adherence to everything no matter what kind of material, whether it be skin, suit material, metal, no matter what it be and it’s restrictive friction-like action to everything it gets on. For instance, the simple large tolerance mechanical devices on the Rover began to show the effect of dust as the EVAs went on. By the middle or end of the third EVA, simple things like bag locks and the lock which held the pallet on the Rover began not only to malfunction but to not function at all. They effectively froze. We tried to dust them and bang the dust off and clean them, and there was just no way. The effect of dust on mirrors, cameras, and checklists is phenomenal. You have to live with it but you’re continually fighting the dust problem both outside and inside the spacecraft. Once you get inside the spacecraft, as much as you dust yourself, you start taking off the suits and you have dust on your hands and your face and you’re walking in it. You can be as careful in cleaning up as you want to, but it just sort of inhabits every nook and cranny in the spacecraft and every pore in your skin. Although I didn’t have any respiratory problems, I think the LMP, which he can comment on later, had some definite local respiratory problems right after the EVA – due to dust in the cabin.”
– Commander Gene Cernan

“Dust – We’ll just talk about in-cabin dust. After the first EVA, there was considerable dust in the cabin. It would be stirred up by movements of the suit and the gear that we had. Almost immediately upon removing my helmet, I started to pick up the symptoms that you might associate with hay fever symptoms. I never had runny eyes or runny nose. It was merely a stuffiness in the nose and maybe in the frontal sinuses that affected my speech and my respiration considerably. After about 2 hours within the cabin, those symptoms gradually disappeared. By morning of the next day they were gone completely. After the second and third EVAs, although I’m sure the dust was comparable, the symptoms were not nearly as strong as after the first EVA. That was as if I either developed a mucous protection of the affected areas or had some way or another very quickly developed an immunity to the effects of the dust.”
– Lunar Module Pilot Jack Schmitt

Here’s James Burke wearing – and removing, one by one – all the components of the A7L spacesuit. The A7L was used through Apollo 14 and the more advanced A7LB was used on Apollo 15-17.

That report was prepared prior to the moon landings. In 1979, Burke did an excellent ten-year anniversary documentary that explains a lot of the workings of lunar missions better than most.

I think this is a great time to start reading Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo. I’ll do that tonight.

I also now have a lighted display case for the Dragon Lunar Approach model I have at home. In normal light, it looks like this:

In the dark with the case’s inbuilt lights turned on, this is closer to how the pair would appear in the sunlight of deep space during the translunar coast:

Finally, a treat: Several years ago on BBC Radio 4, Jeanette Winterson did a fascinating ten-part, 150-minute series about the moon from many perspectives. It’s called “The Inconstant Moon” and you can listen on her site here. Quite a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours.

Radio 4 used this graphic for the programme:

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