Dusting off the decades | Borneo Online Newsletter


HUNTSVILLE, ALABAMA (AP) — The Apollo 16 capsule is dusty all these decades after carrying three astronauts to the moon. Cobwebs cling to the spaceship. Business cards, a pencil, money, a spoon and even a tube of lip balm litter the floor of the giant case that protects the ancient space of a museum.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused an interruption to the ship’s normal exhibit cleaning routine at the United States Space and Rocket Center (USA), located near the National Aeronautics and Space’s Marshall Space Flight Center Administration (NASA). But workers are sprucing up the spacecraft for the 50th anniversary of its April 1972 flight.

Using microfiber towels, extension poles, brushes, dust wands and vacuum cleaners, a team recently cleaned the 6.5-ton, nearly 11-foot-tall capsule and wiped down its enclosure in glass, located under a massive Saturn V rocket suspended from the ceiling. They pulled out dozens of items that people had stuck through the cracks in the casing.

In addition to overseeing the cleaning, consultant curator Ed Stewart taught museum staff how to care for the capsule, which is on loan from the Smithsonian Institution and has been on display in the “rocket town” of Huntsville since the 1970s.

Brushing dust off the side of the pod while wearing protective gear, Stewart said the command module was in “fairly good condition” given its age and the length of time since it was last cleaned approximately three years.

“I’m glad to see there aren’t… thick layers of dust. I didn’t see a lot of insect debris or anything like that, so I take that as a very positive sign,” he said.

Workers open the display case containing the Apollo 16 lunar capsule at the United States Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. PHOTOS: AP
ABOVE AND BELOW: Gary Phillips seen through a hatch window cleaning the exterior; and use a brush and vacuum cleaner to clean the spacecraft; and a spider’s web clings to the Apollo 16 lunar capsule

Retired NASA astrobiologist Richard Hoover, who serves as a guide at the museum, recalled a time when visitors could touch the spacecraft decades ago. Some even removed pieces of the charred heat shield that kept the ship from burning up as it reentered Earth’s atmosphere, he said.

“It’s really a travesty because they don’t realize it’s a hugely important piece of space history,” he said.

Conservation procedures changed when curators realized that a ship built to withstand the rigors of space travel did not hold up well to constant tourist contact, Stewart said. This is why the case surrounding the capsule is sealed.

“Making it last 1,000 years was not on the engineer’s list of requirements to develop them to get astronauts to the moon and back safely,” he said.

Perched atop columns, the capsule – nicknamed “Casper” during the flight – is tilted so visitors can peer inside the open hatch and see the controls and metal-framed seats where astronauts Ken Mattingly, John Young and Charlie Duke Went to the Moon and Back.

Duke, who walked on the moon with Young while Mattingly piloted the capsule, is expected to attend a celebration this spring marking the 50th anniversary of the flight’s takeoff on April 16, 1972.

The capsule was cleaned and all potentially hazardous materials removed after the flight, but reminders of its trip to the moon remain inside. Leaning through the hatch to check for dust, Stewart pointed to a few dark spots above his head.

“It’s the fingerprints and handprints of the crew on it,” he said.

Workers plan to further seal the capsule’s casing so visitors can’t drop anything inside, but they’ve been careful not to overdo it with Apollo 16 itself. While it’s easy enough to clean the spaceship with elbow grease, it would destroy the patina that binds it to the story, Stewart said.

“You don’t want to lose any of this, because it’s all part of the mission saga. If you clean it, it’s gone. It’s that extra texture of the story that kind of gets lost in the ether if you make a mistake,” he said.

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