Meet first man to touch moon dust with his bare hand

Brandon Walker reports.

HOUSTON – It happened as Terry Slezak opened a case of film at Johnson Space Center’s Lunar Receiving Lab.

When he opened the case, Slezak noticed a note penned by Buzz Aldrin.

“This is our lunar surface film,” the note warned, although that’s exactly what Slezak had been expecting. As NASA’s photographer, his job was to process film of the lunar landing.

What happened next placed him in quarantine with the astronauts, although, that’s merely collateral for the history-making move he made – by mistake.

One of the magazines was covered in black dust after Neil Armstrong dropped it while on the moon. Armstrong picked it up and packed it, and the next person to see it was none other than Slezak.

“The guys on the outside said, 'Oh, well, what is that?'” Slezak said, recounting everyone else’s surprise.

By now, Slezak had removed the magazine from its case, transferring black, abrasive dust onto his hand.

“They said, ‘Hold up your hand,’ so I did. Well, they said, ‘You’re the first man in the world to touch moon dust with your bare hands.’ I said, 'Yeah, and that’ll barely get you a cup of coffee, you know?'” Slezak said.

Within a camera’s flash, Slezak’s mug, holding up his left hand covered in black dust, made it to the front page of the newspaper: a day in the life of the man whose pictures tell the story of the time Americans put a man on the moon.

Slezak showed KPRC2 some of the photographs he took and/or processed over the course of his four decades at NASA.

Here's a look at his career in photos:

“Well, the photography department didn’t even own a camera to begin with,” laughed Slezak, 80. Slezak was hired by the Space Task Group in 1960 as a photographer. In preparation for the lunar landing, Slezak had to create a sterilizer for the film he’d have to process. NASA wasn’t sure if there were any extraterrestrial critters that may have hitched a free ride.

“A picture of the astronauts looking at their film. For the first time, they had gotten to see it and everything.”

“I’ve been a big believer in a picture is worth a thousand words,” Slezak said of his work. Here he is training in a Weightless Environment Training Facility with a “pet” alligator.

Terry Slezak considers his creation of the iodine comparator as his greatest accomplishment over the course of his four decades at NASA. The astronauts complained that the color of the water they used was discolored. Turns out iodine had been seeping into it. Slezak’s creation helped astronauts see iodine levels in water aboard the spacecraft.

“I picked up this thing and they said, ‘What is that?’ and I said, ‘That’s the moon dust.’ This is the picture that ended up on the front page of the newspaper.”

Slezak’s moon dust mishap got him 21 days in quarantine with astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. During that time, Armstrong celebrated his 39th birthday, on Aug. 5, 1969.

There isn’t a picture of Neil Armstrong on the moon. Well, if you look closely at this one, you’ll spot him.

“This is the famous moon picture, except this is the picture of Neil Armstrong on the moon. They hadn’t thought ahead of giving Buzz Aldrin the camera to shoot a picture of Neil, so, all the pictures are of Buzz Aldrin and the only picture of Neil Armstrong is in the reflection of his spacesuit,” Slezak said.

Terry Slezak recording video while flying on NASA’s zero-gravity airplane.

About the Author:

Emmy and Edward R. Murrow award-winning journalist. NOLA born and bred, though #HoustonStrong, with stops in Minnesota, New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut in along the way.