Have you ever wondered, while looking at the moon in a dark night, if our closest companion is habitable? Can lunar soil support life? Is lunar soil fertile? Can lunar soil composition allow the growth of plants? NASA actually conducted several experiments on lunar soil samples, brought down by the Apollo missions, to answer these questions. In order to understand the lunar soil composition and to check if it is safe to keep lunar soil on earth, NASA conducted these little known but vitally important experiments. Scientists were already sure that there were no potential germs, viruses or bacteria living on the moon, but still, these experiments were vital for the safety of astronauts who had embarked on this historic journey.
“We had to prove that we weren’t going to contaminate not only human beings, but we weren’t going to contaminate fish and birds and animals and plants and you name it,” Charles Berry, who was in charge of medical operations during Apollo, said in a 1999 oral history. “Any of the Earth’s biosphere, we had to prove we weren’t going to affect it. So we had to develop an amazing program that was carried off really for three flights’ worth. A lot of trouble.”
The astronauts returning from this space travel were quarantined for three weeks. A collection of mice, who were injected with lunar material, were also quarantined and monitored along with astronauts to study any potential adverse effects.
But NASA scientists were not content with these experiments and designed more experiments to ensure the safety of all terrestrial life. First, different species to be used for testing were selected which included: Japanese quail to represent birds; oysters and brown shrimp for shellfish; houseflies and German cockroaches for creepy-crawlies. Mice and quail got the injection of lunar soil, insects had the lunar soil mixed into their food and moon-dust was added into the water of the aquatic life, in which they lived. All of the species survived except for the oysters, which the scientists concluded had died due to other reasons.
In addition to testing on various species of the animal kingdom, NASA worked with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to test any harmful effects of lunar soil on plants. Lunar soil growing plants included tomatoes, tobacco, onions, cabbage, and fern. All of the experiments concluded that lunar soil composition was perfect for the growth of plants.
Meanwhile, search for any microorganisms was also carried out by preparation of cultures on Petri dishes to look for any microorganisms that flourished. No microbial growth was found in lunar soil and finally, in 1971, NASA was confident that lunar soil was harmless and doesn’t contain any contagious, harmful microorganisms.
Muhammad Abdullah Khan has done bachelors in Chemistry from Government College University
Lahore. He is a science enthusiast and loves to read and write about astronomy, cosmology and latest