Finding Apollo

Forty years later, we’re about to see what the moonwalkers left behind.

The shadow of their lander dominates a mosaic of the numbered photos Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took out their window before leaving the moon. (NASA/Panorama assembled by R. Farwell for the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal)
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Gump hasn’t given much thought to what the pictures will show. But he looks forward to the adventure playing out on live TV, “like opening Al Capone’s vault.”

Might the photos, like the vault, prove disappointing? There’s a chance—a very remote one—that the lander has been destroyed by a meteoroid. We know of at least one Apollo artifact that’s still intact, though, right where Aldrin left it on July 21, 1969. Tom Murphy and his colleagues at the University of California at San Diego still interact with it regularly. Every few nights, they point a laser at a quartz prism on the surface. Then the scientists time the beam that bounces back, a measurement useful for gravitational physics studies. In the two years he’s been pinging the Apollo retro-reflectors, Murphy has become increasingly puzzled. Despite the exquisite sensitivity of his instrument on Earth, the signal that bounces back from the moon is 10 times weaker than it should be. After ruling out other explanations, Murphy has come up with a tentative theory: The reflectors left on the moon have degraded over time. Maybe, he thinks, they have been lightly etched by all those sharp dust grains bouncing around for years on the lunar surface. If so, the once-pristine glass may now be frosted, which would explain the loss in signal strength.

It’s the kind of thing NASA engineers planning the next lunar outpost would love to know.  The rest of us just want to find out what happened to the flag. We may not have long to wait.



Lunar Litter

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left behind 66 items at Tranquillity Base, from their removable lunar overshoes (which actually stamped the iconic bootprints in the dust) to a “urine collection assembly, large” and sick bag (presumably unused — none of the Apollo 11 astronauts reported throwing up during the mission). Armstrong and Aldrin stuffed personal items in a large bag and threw it overboard just before leaving. Other objects still on the surface include tools; a TV camera, its stand, and cable; and a clothesline-like contraption for hoisting equipment back into the lander at the end of the moonwalk. The astronauts also left a mission patch memorializing the astronauts killed in the Apollo 1 launch pad fire; medals honoring Soviets Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space, and Vladimir Komarov, the first person to die during a space mission; a silicon disk etched with messages from world leaders; and a small, gold olive branch as a sign of peace.

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