Space Exploration

Relive the Moment the First Human Touched Moon Dust

By Halina Loft
On 20 July, the Sotheby's Space Exploration auction will feature a one-of-a-kind collection of objects from the Apollo 11 space mission , which were presented together from the Apollo 11 crew to Terry Slezak, the first man to touch moon dust with his bare hands. But the story behind these objects – which include the Lunar Surface flown Mag "S" label, the first manuscript to be written on the moon and the signatures of crew members – is even more incredible.

I t's easy to forget that, not so long ago, the moon was a very mysterious place. NASA's Apollo team knew the important facts about the celestial body, of course, but they were less confident when it came to the nitty-gritty details. Case in point: moon dust. Before Apollo 11, scientists weren't sure of what awaited astronauts on the lunar surface. Some feared the dust would prove unstable, crumbling beneath the spacecraft like quicksand; others worried hidden rocks would pierce the astronaut's protective spacesuits or damage the spacecraft during landing. But the more significant concern was whether deadly alien pathogens lived, unseen, in the moon dust. If this fear turned out to be legitimate, and stray dust found its way back to Earth, astronauts and NASA crew wouldn't be the only ones in harm's way; the pathogens could spread, contaminating the Earth's delicate ecosystem and destroying life as we know it. Or at least, that was the worst-case scenario.

So you can imagine how Terry Slezak, a Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) photographic technician assigned to the Apollo 11 Crew Reception Area (CRA) of the Lunar Receiving Lab (LRL), felt when strange, gray dirt spilled out of Film Magazine "S", covering his bare hands. It was moon dust – and he was the first human to make direct contact.

Slezak holding Hasselblad film "Mag. S" in one hand, showing his other hand stained with moondust (hence Armstrong's reference "To a Dirty Photographer")
Metal "Mag. S" label from the left side of the Apollo 11 Lunar Surface Hasselblad 70 mm Film Magazine "S", which was dropped onto the lunar surface by Neil Armstrong as he loaded equipment back onto the Lunar Module using the Lunar Equipment Conveyor (LEC).

Flashback to a few days earlier: it's July, 1969, and astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are loading equipment, including lunar surface cameras and moon rocks, back onto the Apollo 11 spacecraft. The men used a conveyor belt (known as the Lunar Equipment Conveyor, or LEC) to assist with this effort, but due to an oversight, the Hasselblad pack containing Film Magazine "S" fell off. The men explained the incident in the Apollo 11 Technical Crew Debriefing:

"Armstrong: Concerning the LEC, I had neglected to lock one of the LEC hooks which normally wouldn't have caused any trouble. ...However, for an unknown reason when I got the SRC [Sample Return Container, i.e. Rock Boxes] about half way up, the Hasselblad pack just fell off... When it fell onto the surface, it was covered with surface material…

Aldrin: Did the film magazine hit the pad or drop right to the surface?

Armstrong: I think it hit the surface clear of the pad, on the right side, which would be the spacecraft's left. I wasn't worried about the contingency sample because that was inside a bag. If anything was going to catch fire, it was going to be my whole suit because it was just covered in the stuff."

Left: The first manuscript written on the Lunar Surface (Buzz Aldrin wrote this in the lunar module following the historic moonwalk), being a description of the contents of the three most important lunar surface film magazines.
Right: a sheet from the flown Apollo 11 Data file, detailing the photographic timeline. Aldrin and Armstrong were meant to follow the instructions noted on this sheet, but ended up going a bit off-script (hence the details included in the written manuscript).

Despite the fall, Film Magazine "S" seemed fine – which was quite lucky, considering the contents of the magazine. Buzz Aldrin described the contents of the magazine in the manuscript pictured above (left) – to the knowledge of Sotheby's, the first ever written on the lunar surface:

"Except for 1st few frames in orbit this is the Most important Lunar Surface EVA film... Develop R then Q then S. Buzz."
Excerpt the first manuscript written in space, authored by Buzz Aldrin

Aldrin didn't just write this manuscript to practice his penmanship at zero gravity – he and Armstrong had deviated from NASA's original instructions regarding the mission's photographic timeline, and they needed to take note of the changes to ensure accurate record-keeping. Aldrin kept the original Flown Apollo 11 Photographic Timeline, pictured above (right), which is another highlight of the Space Exploration auction.

Upon Apollo 11's return to Earth, Film Magazine "S" needed to be promptly unloaded, sterilized and processed before the astronauts forgot the details they'd captured in each photograph. Slezak was the man assigned to the task, which is how he found himself covered in potentially deadly dust. He recounted the events in for the NASA Johnson Space Center Oral History Project:

"[W]hen I came to Magazine S, I opened the Beta Cloth belt, and in there was a note from Buzz Aldrin. He said "This is the magazine that Neil [A. Armstrong] had dropped on the surface, but this was the most important magazine." When I pulled it out it was all covered in this black material - looked like lampblack almost - it was really dark black with little bright speckly things, which turned out to be little bits of glass from the lunar surface. So everybody said 'What is that?' I said, 'It's Moon dust. That's the only place it's been.' So they had to shoot a picture of me with the Moon dust on my hand. Then, according to protocol, the other people in the room had to leave and I had to strip off my clothing and clean off all the work surfaces with Clorox bleach, then go to the showers.... So the next day, I found my picture on the front page of the newspaper. That's how I became the first man in the world to touch the Moon dust!"
- Terry Slezak

Luckily for Slezak, moon dust is harmless, so long as it's not inhaled. Nonetheless, the crew of Apollo 11 celebrated Slezak's bravery by presenting him with six items from the ordeal, mounted on a special presentation board: the Metal "Mag. S" label from the Apollo 11 Lunar Surface Hasselblad 70 mm Film Magazine "S", the case that had fallen onto the lunar surface; an autographed manuscript signed "BUZZ", written in the Lunar Module following the moonwalk and describing the contents of the film magazine; a flown piece of skin from the Apollo 11 Command Module "Columbia"; a vintage photograph of Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon; a photograph of Slezak with moon dust on his hands; another shot of Slezak in quarantine, Magazine "S" in hand, with Buzz's signed manuscript visible inside of the film magazine outer decontamination bag.

Fifty years later, these flown items are part of Sotheby's forthcoming Space Exploration auction, taking place on 20 July. Place your bid now to stake your claim on this piece of history, before it's too late.

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