50 years later, last sealed Apollo 17 lunar samples opened

The future of space: Here's what we know

HOUSTON – Fifty years after Apollo 17, NASA’s Johnson Space Center is taking the lead in a major milestone – the opening of lunar sample from the last Apollo mission, Apollo 17.

In 1972, Commander Gene Cernan and Lunar Module Pilot and geologist Harrison ‘Jack’ Schmitt and Command Module Pilot Ronald Evans left the earth to complete the mission. With Evans, ready to be the crew’s lifeline in the Command Module, Cernan and Schmitt made it to the lunar surface to conduct experiments and collect lunar samples as part of the mission. Fifty years later, the Johnson Space Center is leading the effort to open one of the last remaining samples of the Apollo era and get data and best practices from the mission to help the future generations of space explorers. 

“Everything that happens to the moon basically stays there,” said Juliane Gross, Deputy Apollo Sample Curator at JSC. “So, when the astronauts landed on the moon and took samples, they basically took an archive of our earth-moon history.”

Apollo 17 was a mission that broke records and was the last mission to have people on the moon. Cernan and Schmitt, continuing the legacy of the Apollo astronauts before them,  collected more than 250 lbs of lunar regolith, revealing different layers beneath the lunar surface as well as gas trapped inside the preserved and pristine samples. With the capabilities of tools like the lunar rover, they were able to cover the most ground away from the spacecraft and spent the longest time doing work outside of it. Scientists then knew that it would be prudent and important to wait until technology improved and had intended for samples to be preserved until technology caught up to make the most of the hard work. 

“Scientists were great, but their instruments, ours are 50 years better it turns out. And so, we can do a lot more with a lot less nowadays and the people at the time were smart enough and patient enough to wait,” said Ryan Zeigler, Apollo Sample Curator at JSC.

JSC’s Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Division (ARES) crafted a painstaking plan of how to handle this precious and pristinely preserved sample under vacuum. This is all part of the Apollo Next Generation Sample Analysis Program (ANGSA). It turns out there are a few lessons learned this week. The Apollo 17 astronauts got too much lunar material.

“They drove it in really far and they filled it right to the very brim!” Zeigler laughed. “Having too much is always a good problem to have.”

What the researchers and scientists learned from opening this sample, they will now apply to best practices on lunar material collection. They will also analyze the sample to help them learn more about the moon’s natural environment and resources to help leaders understand the moon as astronauts of this generation set their sights on the Artemis program, in which its early missions will focus on the moon’s South Pole. For now, JSC researchers are using these samples in multiple ways. The lunar matter tells the moon’s geological record.

“See the color variations that are basically beneath the surface,” Gross said.

This data will help scientists learn to develop best practices to get the best data and learn more about the moon’s natural environment and resources.

“That makes it really exciting for us!” Gross aid.

Scientists will continue to save samples collected during Artemis missions.

Here is the full interview with Apollo Sample Curator Ryan Zeigler and Deputy Apollo Sample Curator Juliane Gross who had the job of opening one of the last remaining SEALED Apollo-era moon samples collected by Apollo 17 astronauts Commander Gene Cernan and Lunar Module Pilot Harrison 'Jack' Schmitt in 1972 50 years later -- they tell us what they learned and how it will help the future of space! KPRC2 / Click2Houston NASA - National Aeronautics and Space Administration NASA's Johnson Space Center

Posted by KPRC2 Rose-Ann Aragon on Friday, March 25, 2022