Apollo 12 Remembered

Lunar Germ Colony or Lab Anomaly?

Tiny earth, a planet that could be blotted out with a lunar astronaut’s thumb.
Credit: NASA

This last week (November 19) marked the thirty-fifth anniversary of Apollo 12’s lunar touchdown. As the second manned mission, the lander carried the third and fourth men to walk on the moon. While one of its primary goals was to demonstrate precision touchdown and navigation, its target was a robotic lander that awaited it on the surface. The mission was to retrieve parts of the Surveyor 3 probe.

One astrobiological implication was a series of bacterial culturing experiments. The outcome of that experiment have remained part of the lore of the Apollo program.

The plan was to bring back the camera portion of the probe, but when the recovery was done and results were analyzed in Houston, a remarkable report was generated at the time that buried in the camera’s insulating foam was a strain of streptococcus bacteria that appeared to have dessicated and survived three years of protected lunar exposure.

In 1991, when Apollo 12 Commander Pete Conrad reviewed the transcripts of his conversations relayed from the moon back to Earth, he annotated his perspective: "I always thought the most significant thing that we ever found on the whole…Moon was that little bacteria who came back and lived and nobody ever said [anything] about it."

Part of the discussion centered on sample handling. The Apollo 12 results were later dismissed as laboratory error, owing to a single non-sterile handling event. But the lore continues to occupy some who anticipate that dormant bacteria or microbes may form a possible biological tranfer route between solar system bodies. The longest exposure time of bacteria to the harsh vacuum of space was a Bacillus strain that was revived after six years in a controlled biological experiment, so even if the Apollo 12 results are questionable, the ability of bacteria to survive extreme environments is not particularly in question.

Strep culture found in Apollo 12 camera insulation

In 1998, Henry Spencer wrote online that he was not surprised by the Apollo 12 result, " As the original report in "Analysis of Surveyor 3 material and photographs returned by Apollo 12" made clear, there really is nothing very remarkable about a few tough bacteria surviving in that particular location (deep within the camera). The one aspect of lunar conditions that is a real problem for bacteria is high temperatures, and thermal modelling of the camera estimated the maximum internal temperature at 70 deg C, which is not a big problem for bacteria. And the Surveyors were not sterilized."

Author and space historian, James Oberg wrote in the same thread that " It is widely believed that streptococcus germs aboard Surveyor-3 (inside the TV camera) survived their three-year lunar sojourn and were brought back to Earth by the Apollo-12 crew. Leonard D. Jaffe was Surveyor project scientist and custodian of the Surveyor 3 parts brought back from the moon. He wrote to the Planetary Society recently that according to report from somebody on his staff who had witnessed the biological test which gave positive results, a "breach of sterile procedure" took place at just the right time to produce a false positive result. One of the implements being used to scrape samples off the Surveyor parts was laid down on a non-sterile laboratory bench, and then was used to collect surface samples for culturing. It was that sample set which showed the presence of the germs, a common human infectuous bacteria.

"Concluded Dr. Jaffe, ‘It is, therefore, quite possible that the microorganisms were transferred to the camera after its return to Earth, and that they had never been to the Moon.’ The test, of course, could only be performed once, and the parts were subsequently taken out of quarantine and fully re-exposed to terrestrial conditions, so we’ll never know for sure. But it looks suspiciously like a lab error rather than a lunar germ colony."

Strep culture colorized from petri dish samples.

The discussion on the issue continues because of its inherent intrigue for both space history and setting survival boundaries of astrobiological interest. As Cornell’s Bill Nye, a former undergraduate student of Carl Sagan’s and latest design advisor for the Mars Sundial Experiment told Astrobiology Magazine recently, " An astonishing part of the story concerning the recovery of parts from the Surveyor spacecraft is that there were microbes on the spacecraft that had accidentally been left on board, and they successfully stowed-away. They survived for years in the harsh environment of the Moon. When they got back to Earth, they continued to grow. It’s compelling evidence for astrobiologists that the environmental limits for living things are set pretty far apart."

"Sample return is the next big thing with NASA," says Genesis recovery team chief Bob Corwin, of Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver. "Stardust will also be doing a sample return next year, as will future missions."

Sample return missions currently in progress include spacecraft designed to sample a comet, an asteroid, and the solar wind. Although life is not likely to be found in these places, the precursor chemicals that make life possible may be present.

NASA’s Stardust mission, launched in 1999, and reached comet Wild 2 in January 2004. Stardust will return to Earth with both cometary and interstellar dust particle samples in January 2006.

NASA’s Genesis mission was designed to collect solar wind samples. The spacecraft was launched in August of 2001 and collected particles coming off the sun. The samples were returned to Earth in September 2004 and complex laboratory analysis is attempting now to recover from its unexpected hard-landing.

Japan’s MUSES-C spacecraft, launched May 2003, is headed for asteroid 1998 SF36. After its arrival in June 2005, the spacecraft will gather up to one gram of material from a variety of sites on the asteroid. The samples are expected to arrive back on Earth by June 2007.

Recent Lunar Timelines

– Japanese Hiten , Lunar Flyby and Orbiter
– Michael Rampino and Richard Strothers propose Earth could be periodically struck by comets dislodged from orbits when the solar system passes through galactic plane
– US Dept. Defense/NASA Clementine mission, Lunar Orbiter/Attempted Asteroid Flyby
– First commercial lunar mission, AsiaSat 3/HGS-1 , Lunar Flyby
Lunar Prospector launches and enters lunar orbit
Lunar Prospector tries to detect water on the Moon (polar impact)
– Lunar soil samples and computer models by Robin Canup and Erik Asphaug support impact origin of moon
SMART 1 , to launch lunar orbiter and test solar-powered ion drive for deep space missions
– Japanese Lunar-A , Lunar Mapping Orbiter and Penetrator, to fire two bullets 3 meters into the lunar soil near Apollo 12 and 14 sites
– Japanese SELENE Lunar Orbiter and Lander, to probe the origin and evolution of the moon


Related Web Pages

Long, Strange Trips
Astrobiology Roadmap
Moon Meteor Truly Extraterrestrial
Moon Written in Stone
SMART-1: Chips Off the Terrestrial Block
Treasures from the Lunar Attic
Lunar Scarface
End of an Era, Dawn of Another?
Making the Moon
"Bring ’em Back Alive – or at Least Carefully" Essay by John Rummel and Margaret Race
Alien Infection
Space Invaders