Playing With Moon Rocks and Duct Tape at the Dinner Table

This evening I was prowling through pictures taken during the current Expedition aboard the International Space Station when I came across a picture of astronauts and a Moon rock. The photo was taken on 21 July 2009 and shows portions of the combined Expedition 20 and STS-127 crews gathered around the dinner table while Mike Barratt holds a Moon rock. This was hauntingly familiar.

While Scott Parazynski was at Everest Base Camp in April he spoke with Barratt twice by satellite phone - once, on his birthday [video] before I arrived, and a second time [video], the day after I arrived when a group of JSC trekkers stopped by for a visit. Unbeknownst to the JSC trekkers (or the rest of Everest Base Camp and Mike Barratt for that matter) I had a piece of plastic containing four small Apollo 11 moon rocks in my chest pocket.

These moon rocks had been picked up by Neil Armstrong in July 1969. Numbered as sample 10085,134 this was one of the surface and subsurface samples picked up about 15-20 feet (4-6 meters) north of the Lunar Module "Eagle" which landed in the Sea of Tranquility.

By coincidence, unbeknownst to Scott and I, Mike Barratt also had another Apollo 11 Moon rock (albeit a bigger one) with him on the ISS, having been delivered by STS-119 only a few days before.

Gee, these Moon rocks certainly manage to visit exciting places - and do so with great stealth.

Update: these little moon rocks - plus a piece of the summit of Mt. Everest - are now aboard the International Space Station.

I had carried these little Moon rocks all the way from the states such that Scott could then carry them to the summit of Mt. Everest. In order not to spill the beans, we refered to the sample as "the Nugget" and our plan to get it to the summit (and back!) quickly became known as "Nugget Ops." Every now and again Scott and I got a little carried away with NASAspeak such that our friends at Base Camp gave us silly looks. We are such geeks.

What was funny about seeing this on-orbit photo was something Scott and I did one afternoon in our own mess tent at Everest Base Camp. We both wanted to make some gear to help him carry a couple of things with him as he "went up the hill". One thing we needed to work on was a way to get some of astrobiologist Lynn Rothschild's sample vials containing DNA up to Camp II such that Scott could expose them to the extreme UV that blasts the area. The vials needed to be isolated from light, held tight so they did not rattle, etc.

More importantly, we needed something that could both protect the Moon rocks and be easy for Scott to handle with his cold, clumsy hands on the summit when it was time for Nugget Ops on the summit (i.e. taking photos of the nugget and the rising Moon). We also did not want to risk having Scott drop the Nugget in the snow and not be able to find it so it was tethered to Scott as well.

Luckily, both Scott and I just happened to be tool-using primates and we had knives, duct tape, and a pair of surgical retractors I brought with me. All we needed was parts. So, we waited until the mess tent was empty and scoured the food containers in the center of the large table looking for things we could use.

I managed to take a large plastic jar of cough drops, empty it into another jar, and cut it down to a size that would hold the vials. Some padding and duct tape and we were good to go. In the mean time, Scott found two lids from some Pringles cans (a major food item) and he created a large circular holder with the Nugget in the middle. He held the pieces together while I applied duct tape and presto, we had a Nugget Containment Device.

Up until that point I had been keeping the Nugget on my body 24/7 for one solid month no matter where I went. Having handed it over to Scott, it was kind of odd to not have it with me any more. I have to say, one of the most unusual things I have ever gotten used to was waking up at night, rolling over, and realizing that the thing that was poking me in the chest was a Moon rock.

Scott eventually made it to the summit, deployed the Nugget Containment Device per our plan, and got the photo of the Nugget with the rising Moon. Of course, we practiced the photos ahead of time and made certain we knew where the Moon would be as Scott raced to the summit.

Scott also managed to get another duct tape enabled item to the summit: My old NASA badge from 1990. Prior to his departure for the summit, we sat in the Comms tent and went through Scott's "Summit bling" to make sure he knew what goes up to stay, what comes back, and what gets photographed - all in order of priority. In order to make the photo process as efficient as possible Scott subsequently duct taped lots of things together.

Only after he came back to Base Camp and I saw the summit photos did I learn that I had shared the summit with someone rather famous: Suni Williams' dog "Gorbie". The photo of Gorbie was one that Suni had with her aboard the ISS several years ago. I also had a larger "Flat Gorbie" which made regular appearances at Everest Base Camp.

Alas, the phone call we had hoped to have between Scott and Neil Armstrong from the summit never happened - even though Bob Jacobs at NASA PAO and I were in constant real time communication as Bob tried to track Armstrong down. And due to the timing of Scott's summit he missed a scheduled comms pass with Mike Barratt on the ISS. And, dagnabit, he forgot to pose with the Nugget and give the Vulcan salute. Must have been the low Oxygen levels in his brain. That said, he done good given the utterly improbable thing that he had just done!

Those deviations from the plan aside, Scott and the Nugget made it to the summit and safely back to Base Camp. Of course we knew this was all going to work out. You see, as a precaution of sorts, I had the Nugget blessed in a Buddhist Temple in Pengboche on the trek in to Base Camp. Climbers have all manner of things (including themselves) blessed all the time. But this was special. And how people (westerners and Sherpas) reacted to these little pieces of the Moon really caught Scott and I by surprise.

But that's another story I'll have to write about soon.

The Nugget - actually 4 small Moon rocks in a plastic hemisphere.

Keith Cowing Reporting from Nepal and Everest

Keith at the Hillary School in Khumjung, Nepal with a statue of Sir Edmund Hillary. In Keith's hand is a piece of the Moon collected during Apollo 11.

Scott and JSC Trekkers talking by satellite phone with Mike Barratt aboard the ISS. Note the "Flat Gorbie" in front of Scott on the table. Also note the numerous cans of Pringles.

Keith Cowing in the Mess Tent at Everest Base Camp making a carrying container for Astrobiology DNA vials




Carrying container for Astrobiology DNA vials. Note duct tape and retractors.

Scott holding the Nugget Containment Device inside the Mess Tent

Keith Cowing holding the Nugget at Everest Base Camp while the Moon rises over his head.

Scott Parazynski holding the Nugget on the summit of Mt. Everest while the Moon rises over his head.

Scott Parazynski with photos of Gorbie (left) and Keith Cowing (right) on the summit of Mt. Everest. Behind Scott is a Buddha in a metal and glass box.

Buddhist caretaker performing a blessing of the Nugget at the temple in Pengboche. Note the can of Pringles on the altar. Like I said, you see them everywhere. More on this story another time.

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