The Apollo Astronaut Who Was Allergic to the Moon

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The inside of Apollo 17’s lunar module smelled of gunpowder. It was December 1972, the last of NASA’s manned moon missions, and astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison “Jack” Schmitt had just finished a successful survey of the Valley of Taurus-Littrow, a spot on the southeastern “coast” of the Moon’s Sea of Serenity. They had returned to the landing module with their spacesuits caked in moondust.

The men brushed themselves off and removed their helmets. Suddenly, Schmitt began having a sneezing fit. His eyes reddened. His throat itched. His sinuses clogged.

“I didn’t know I had lunar dust hay fever,” Schmitt said. Listening in, men stationed back on Earth began to bust Schmitt’s chops over the radio transmission. “It’s funny they don’t check for that,” said Joseph Allen at Mission Control. “Maybe that’s the trouble with the cheap noses, Jack.”

Schmitt, it turns out, was basically allergic to the Moon.

NASA

Of all the difficulties involved with putting a man on the Moon, “the major issue the Apollo astronauts pointed out was dust, dust, dust,” Larry Taylor, director of the Planetary Geosciences Institute, said in an interview with the Soil Science Society of America. The Apollo 11 astronauts griped that the “particles covered everything and a stain remained even after our best attempts to brush it off.” An Apollo 12 crew member moaned that the lunar module “had so much dust that when I took my helmet off, I was almost blinded.”

Moondust may look soft and pillowy, but it’s actually sharp and abrasive, largely the detritus of micrometeorite impacts. With no wind or moving water on the Moon’s surface, moondust never erodes. Effectively, no natural process exists on the lunar surface that can round its edges. When astronauts inhale what is essentially finely powdered glass, it becomes a huge health hazard [PDF]: The powder is so jagged that a deep breath could cause it to lodge in the lungs and pierce the alveolar sacs and ducts [PDF], resulting in a lunar version of “stone-grinder’s disease,” or silicosis, a deadly condition that commonly killed coal miners (and still kills 100 Americans a year). To complicate matters, lunar dust also contains a lot of iron—and this iron-laden dust has recently been implicated in hypertension among Apollo astronauts [PDF].

Reports of moondust misadventures from previous Apollo missions never deterred Harrison Schmitt. After all, the Harvard-educated geologist had dedicated the better part of a decade to studying the Moon’s landscape. Working for the U.S. Geological Survey’s astrogeology department, he used telescope photos to map the Moon and planets. So when the NASA asked if any scientists were interested in visiting space, Schmitt hardly hesitated. “I thought about 10 seconds and raised my hand and volunteered,” he said in a 1999 oral history project with NASA.

No astronaut knew more about lunar geology than Schmitt. Previously, every other Apollo flyboy had had a background as a military pilot. Schmitt was the first, and only, professional scientist to walk on the Moon. As a result, the press didn’t romanticize or hype the geologist astronaut. The New York Times described the 37-year-old as a “quiet, serious bachelor who does not own a television set or a stereo.” As he trained to go to the Moon, completing a 53-week flight training course and logging 2100 hours of flying time, the scientist never imagined that he would wind up being allergic to the lunar dust and rocks he had spent years studying from afar.

Schmitt in the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) during the third Apollo 17 extravehicular activity (EVA) at the Taurus-Littrow landing site. Image Credit: Getty Images

 

In December 1972, Schmitt landed in the Moon’s Valley of Taurus-Littrow, surrounded by mountains and endless stretches of moondust. During their first moonwalk, the lunar roving vehicle lost a fender. The tires spun, and the rover kicked up a cloud of dust.

The sediment got lodged in every wrinkle, fold, nook, and cranny of Schmitt’s spacesuit. The dust “gummed up the joints” of his suit so badly that he had trouble moving his arms. The powder chewed up his footwear, too. “The dust was so abrasive that it actually wore through three layers of Kevlar-like material on Jack’s boot,” Taylor said.

When the astronauts returned to the lunar module, it took forever to brush the dust off. Schmitt later complained [PDF] of “a lot of irritation to my sinuses and nostrils soon after taking the helmet off ... the dust really bothered my eyes and throat. I was tasting it and eating it.” The symptoms lasted for about two hours. His condition was consistent with the findings of Dr. Bill Carpentier, a NASA doctor who had evidence suggesting the dust could cause allergic responses [PDF].

Schmitt's pesky moon allergies couldn't stop his true grit. Thanks to his background as a geologist, Apollo 17 collected more rock samples than any other mission. One sample, the 4.2-billion-year-old hunk of rubble called “Troctolite 76535,” later helped unlock secrets of the Moon’s magnetic field [PDF].

Schmitt also discovered bright orange beads of volcanic glass on the Moon’s surface. Not only did these samples prove that the Moon was once volcanically active, they also provided evidence that it contained water. And before they packed for home, Schmitt and his fellow Apollo 17 astronauts snapped a photo of Earth. Today, it’s one of the most iconic photographs of our home: the Blue Marble.

The Leonid Meteor Shower Peaks This Weekend—Here's the Best Way to Watch It

mdesigner125/iStock via Getty Images
mdesigner125/iStock via Getty Images

We're nearing the end of 2019, but there are still a few astronomical events to catch before the year is s out. This Sunday—November 17—the Leonid meteor shower is expected to peak. Here's everything you need to know before viewing the spectacle.

What is the Leonid meteor shower?

Like all meteor showers, the Leonids are caused by meteoroids from outer space burning up on their descent toward Earth. These particular shooting stars come from the rocky tail of Comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle. Each November, debris from the comet pummels the Earth's atmosphere, causing meteors to light up the sky at rates that can exceed 1000 per hour.

The Leonids won't reach that frequency this year. According to EarthSky, the meteors would peak at a rate of around 10 to 15 per hour in a dark, moonless sky. But because the moon will be bright this weekend, sky-gazers will likely see less of them, with only the brightest shooting stars shining through.

How to See the Leonids

For your best chance of spotting the Leonids, look up the night of Sunday, November 17 and early in the morning of Monday, November 18. The shower reaches its peak after midnight. The moon will be in its waning gibbous phase at that time, so even with clear skies, viewing conditions won't be ideal. But there are ways to increase your chances of seeing as many meteors as possible. Try finding a large object to stand under—such as a tree or building—that will block your view of the moon. If you don't see anything right away, be patient: The more time you give your eyes to adjust to the darkness, the more likely you are to spot a shooting star.

What is Mercury in Retrograde, and Why Do We Blame Things On It?

NASA
NASA

Crashed computers, missed flights, tensions in your workplace—a person who subscribes to astrology would tell you to expect all this chaos and more when Mercury starts retrograding. For the remainder of 2019, that means October 31-November 20. But according to an astronomer, this common celestial phenomenon is no reason to stay cooped up at home for weeks at a time.

"We don't know of any physical mechanism that would cause things like power outages or personality changes in people," Dr. Mark Hammergren, an astronomer at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, tells Mental Floss. So if Mercury doesn’t throw business dealings and relationships out of whack when it appears to change direction in the sky, why are so many people convinced that it does?

The History of "Mercury in Retrograde"

Mercury retrograde—as it's technically called—was being written about in astrology circles as far back as the mid-18th century. The event was noted in British agricultural almanacs of the time, which farmers would read to sync their planting schedules to the patterns of the stars. During the spiritualism craze of the Victorian era, interest in astrology boomed, with many believing that the stars affected the Earth in a variety of (often inconvenient) ways. Late 19th-century publications like The Astrologer’s Magazine and The Science of the Stars connected Mercury retrograde with heavy rainfall. Characterizations of the happening as an "ill omen" also appeared in a handful of articles during that period, but its association with outright disaster wasn’t as prevalent then as it is today.

While other spiritualist hobbies like séances and crystal gazing gradually faded, astrology grew even more popular. By the 1970s, horoscopes were a newspaper mainstay and Mercury retrograde was a recurring player. Because the Roman god Mercury was said to govern travel, commerce, financial wealth, and communication, in astrological circles, Mercury the planet became linked to those matters as well.

"Don’t start anything when Mercury is retrograde," an April 1979 issue of The Baltimore Sun instructed its readers. "A large communications organization notes that magnetic storms, disrupting messages, are prolonged when Mercury appears to be going backwards. Mercury, of course, is the planet associated with communication." The power attributed to the event has become so overblown that today it's blamed for everything from digestive problems to broken washing machines.

What is Mercury in Retrograde?

Though hysteria around Mercury retrograde is stronger than ever, there's still zero evidence that it's something we should worry about. Even the flimsiest explanations, like the idea that the gravitational pull from Mercury influences the water in our bodies in the same way that the moon controls the tides, are easily deflated by science. "A car 20 feet away from you will exert a stronger pull of gravity than the planet Mercury does," Dr. Hammergren says.

To understand how little Mercury retrograde impacts life on Earth, it helps to learn the physical process behind the phenomenon. When the planet nearest to the sun is retrograde, it appears to move "backwards" (east to west rather than west to east) across the sky. This apparent reversal in Mercury's orbit is actually just an illusion to the people viewing it from Earth. Picture Mercury and Earth circling the sun like cars on a racetrack. A year on Mercury is shorter than a year on Earth (88 Earth days compared to 365), which means Mercury experiences four years in the time it takes us to finish one solar loop.

When the planets are next to one another on the same side of the sun, Mercury looks like it's moving east to those of us on Earth. But when Mercury overtakes Earth and continues its orbit, its straight trajectory seems to change course. According to Dr. Hammergren, it's just a trick of perspective. "Same thing if you were passing a car on a highway, maybe going a little bit faster than they are," he says. "They're not really going backwards, they just appear to be going backwards relative to your motion."

Embedded from GIFY

Earth's orbit isn't identical to that of any other planet in the solar system, which means that all the planets appear to move backwards at varying points in time. Planets farther from the sun than Earth have even more noticeable retrograde patterns because they're visible at night. But thanks to astrology, it's Mercury's retrograde motion that incites dread every few months.

Dr. Hammergren blames the superstition attached to Mercury, and astrology as a whole, on confirmation bias: "[Believers] will say, 'Aha! See, there's a shake-up in my workplace because Mercury's retrograde.'" He urges people to review the past year and see if the periods of their lives when Mercury was retrograde were especially catastrophic. They'll likely find that misinterpreted messages and technical problems are fairly common throughout the year. But as Dr. Hammergren says, when things go wrong and Mercury isn't retrograde, "we don't get that hashtag. It's called Monday."

This piece originally ran in 2018.

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