Final Simulations and Certification

The successful flight of Apollo 8 into lunar orbit during the Christmas season of 1968 emphasized the fact that a lunar landing was fast approaching and that preparations for back-contamination control were becoming critical. Headquarters began to take a more active interest in the receiving laboratory and related operations as 1969 began. Apollo program director Sam Phillips came to Houston in early February for a thorough review of containment from splashdown to release from quarantine.45 Ten days later George Mueller, whose Office of Manned Space Flight had just been given full responsibility within NASA for back-contamination control, brought a group of advisers from the regulatory agencies to scrutinize Houston's preparations.46 These advisers found the receiving lab far from ready to handle a mission: equipment problems, a shortage of technicians, incompletely trained personnel, and deficient protocols for biological testing all required work.47

These and other deficiencies were expected to surface during a month-long dress rehearsal of laboratory operations scheduled to start March 3. This exercise could not exactly simulate every detail of operations because of equipment limitations, but it would come as close as possible. During the second week a simulation of recovery operations would be run in connection with the flight of Apollo 9, to evaluate the transfer of astronauts from the recovery ship to the mobile quarantine facility and then to the crew reception area of the lunar receiving laboratory.48

Expectations were borne out by the results of the simulation. Scores of faults, most of them minor but some of them critical, emerged in both equipment and procedures.49 Among the more serious problems was contamination of the first work station - the vacuum chamber in which the lunar sample containers were opened. Somehow minute traces of organic matter had found their way into the system, threatening to vitiate the search for indigenous organic material in the samples. Worse yet, the level of contamination was not constant, so the investigators could not correct their findings for it. When it appeared that the contamination came from the vacuum pumping system, investigators began to consider alternatives to opening the sample containers under vacuum to keep the lunar material in pristine condition. The best choice seemed to be to fill the chamber with a gas (sterile nitrogen) that would not interfere with subsequent analyses.50

The receiving laboratory staff continued to work on the many details of laboratory operation throughout the spring. Progress continued toward certification of the quarantine facilities and back-contamination procedures.51 By the time the interagency committee met on June 5, MSC had completed action on most of the outstanding questions and the committee granted certification of the lunar receiving laboratory as a biological containment facility.52 The launch of Apollo 11 was only five weeks away when another mission simulation got under way in the laboratory, with only minor technical problems remaining to be worked out.53

Considering the technical sophistication of the receiving laboratory and the rigorous procedures for handling the lunar samples, it is hardly surprising that problems persisted as long as they did. Management arrangements contributed as well; the outside scientists who were intimately involved in examination and distribution of the samples could not spend full time at MSC, making continuity of activity more difficult. Wilmot Hess was sensitive to the need for close cooperation between MSC and the outside scientific community, and the relationships established in the two years before the first landing went a long way toward alleviating the problem.

Quarantine and back-contamination control added to the overall complexity. Without a doubt, most engineers and lunar scientists at MSC took the back-contamination problem much less seriously than did the interagency committee - which, unfortunately for the engineers, had the authority to impose its requirements on the program. The reemergence in early 1969 of concern with back-contamination during recovery operations can be attributed to the committee's perception that MSC was not cooperating to solve the problem because the engineers considered it unimportant.54 In the end, the committee yielded at least as much as the engineers on the question of biological containment, but it required considerable effort and tactful interaction with the committee to produce that result.

The start of operations in the receiving laboratory coincided with a period of retrenchment in NASA, and technical difficulties were compounded by personnel problems. Rising budget deficits in the last two years of Lyndon Johnson's administration had alarmed Congress and put a real squeeze on federal programs, not excepting NASA's. Apollo suffered less than other programs,55 but it was not completely immune to economy measures. Ever since authorization hearings began in early 1968 the field centers had been under pressure to reduce expenditures and cut staff.56 MSC's inability to add professional staff in the receiving laboratory affected more than just the science. Four months before Apollo 11 flew, the Office of Manned Space Flight's operations forecast for 1969 showed lunar landing missions being launched at two- to three-month intervals after the first. Gilruth took exception, however, advising Headquarters that, with its current complement of professionals, the lunar receiving laboratory could support a lunar mission only once every four months and that only if all went well during each quarantine period.57 The laboratory had enough professional staff to operate only two fully productive shifts a day; a third "holding shift" was manned principally by technicians, who maintained the laboratory but did not continue processing the samples.58

Nonetheless, on June 4, 1969, mission operating conditions were established in the laboratory,59 and a Task Group was formed to direct operations during the Apollo 11 mission.60 With the launch date for Apollo 11 inexorably approaching, the laboratory staff continued to refine sample-handling procedures and work on the last remaining technical problems.

45. Phillips to Gilruth, "Lunar Receiving Laboratory Readiness Review," Jan. 16, 1969; Gilruth to Phillips, Jan. 29, 1969, with tentative agenda for proposed review.

46. Mueller to Gilruth, Jan. 13, 1969; Gilruth to Mueller, Feb. 8, 1969.

47. A. B. Park to Pickering, Mar. 7, 1969, with encl., "Report by U.S. Department of Agriculture Team on Lunar Receiving Laboratory Evaluation for Quarantine Requirements," n.d.; Howard H. Eckels to Pickering, Mar. 11, 1969, with encl., "Department of Interior Observations on the Lunar Receiving Laboratory Procedures Relative to Invertebrate and Fish Species, February 12, 13, and 14, 1969"; idem, Feb. 27, 1969, with encl., Kenneth E. Wolf to Eckles, "Technical Review of Lunar Receiving Laboratory," Feb. 25, 1969; Pickering to Dir., Apollo Program, "LRL Bioprotocol Readiness Review and Certification Procedures," Feb. 24, 1969.

48. MSC, "Lunar Receiving Laboratory Simulation Plan, March 3-April 16, 1969," n.d., pp. 1-2.

49. Rudy Trabanino to LTD's [Laboratory Test Directors], "Debriefing of Laboratory Personnel," Mar. 16, 1969; D. White to LTD's, "Critique of 3-13 March Simulation in Vacuum Laboratory - Shift I," Mar. 16, 1969; T. McPherson to LTD's, "Vacuum Laboratory Critique - Second Shift," Mar. 16, 1969; Trabanino to LTD's, "Critical Vacuum Laboratory Problems," Mar. 21, 1969; O. A. Schaeffer and J. G. Funkhauser to Bryan Erb, "Leak Checking of RCL Containers with Gas Analysis System," Mar. 24, 1969; Bell to Deputy Mgr., LRL, "Problems Identified in February and March LRL simulations," Mar. 27, 1969; H. C. Sweet and Charles H. Walkinsbau, Jr., "Summary of Simulation of Botanical Protocol - March 1969," n.d. [Mar. 1969]; "Minutes, Interagency Committee on Back Contamination, 28-29 March 1969-Manned Spacecraft Center - Houston, Texas," Mar. 29, 1969; Trabanino, "Critical Vacuum Laboratory Problems," Apr. 3, 1969.

50. Hess to Bell, "Organic Contamination of F201," Apr. 8, 1969.

51. Johnston to multiple addressees, "Action items from Interagency Committee on Back Contamination (ICBC) Meeting," May 5, 1969; Gilruth to multiple addressees, "Establishment of Apollo Back Contamination Control Panel," May 8, 1969; Johnston to Chief, Crew Systems Div., and Chief, Flight Crew Support Div., "Lunar Module Back Contamination Simulation," May 12, 1969; Johnston to Col. John E. Pickering, May 14, 1969; Johnston to multiple addressees, "Action Items from Interagency Committee on Back Contamination (ICBC) Meeting, May 2, 1969," May 15, 1969; idem, "ICBC Telephone Conference Summary and Action Items," May 21, 1969; MSC, "Back Contamination Mission Rules (Recovery to Receiving Lab)," MSC 00005, May 21, 1969; Low to multiple addressees, "Back Contamination Procedures," May 20, 1969; Robert E. Smylie to Mgr., Apollo Spacecraft Program, "Back Contamination Procedures," May 22, 1969; Johnston to multiple addressees, "Apollo Back Contamination Simulation Meeting Summary," May 23, 1969; idem, "Back Contamination Action Items," May 28, 1969.

52. Mueller to Administrator, "Manned Space Flight Weekly Report," June 9, 1969.

53. Johnston to multiple addressees, "Apollo Back Contamination Simulation Meeting Summary," May 23, 1969.

54. Sencer to Paine, Apr. 7, 1969.

55. W. David Compton and Charles D. Benson, Living and Working in Space: A History of Skylab, NASA SP-4208 (Washington, 1983) , pp. 99-102.

56. Hess to MSC Dir., "Summary OSSA Senior Council Meeting," Apr. 30, 1968; Hess to John E. Naugle, "Staffing of the LRL," June 6, 1968; Naugle to Hess, same sub., July 9, 1968; M. L. Raines to Assoc. Dir., "Systems and Support Contractor Reduction," July 12, 1968; MSC, "Minutes of Monthly LRL Review, September 16, 1968"; Earle B. Young to LRL ORI Committee, "Proposed LRL Staffing," Nov. 26, 1968; P. R. Bell to Dir., Science and Applications, "Staffing Plan for the Lunar and Receiving Laboratory," Jan. 17, 1969; Wesley L. Hjornevik to Lt. Gen. Frank A. Bogart, "Lunar Receiving Laboratory Staffing," Jan.27, 1969; MSC, "LRL Staffing Plan Status, April 8, 1969, Science & Applications Directorate and Medical Research & Operations Directorate."

57. John D. Stevenson, TWX to multiple addressees, "MSF mission operations forecast for January 1969," Jan. 3, 1969; Gilruth to Stevenson, "Ability to support launch schedule for CY 1969," Mar. 4, 1969.

58. Bell to Dir., Science and Applications, "Staffing plan for the Lunar and Receiving Laboratory," Jan. 17, 1969.

59. W. W. Kemmerer, Jr., to all LRL personnel, "Initiation of mission operating conditions for the Sample Laboratory secondary biological barrier," June 3, 1969.

60. Johnston to all NASA LRL personnel, "Lunar Receiving Laboratory Apollo 11 Task Group," June 4, 1969.

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