Workers clean the Apollo 16 spacecraft ahead of the 50th anniversary


HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (AP) – The Apollo 16 capsule is dusty all these decades after carrying three astronauts to the moon. Cobwebs cling to the spaceship. Business cards, a pencil, money, a spoon and even a tube of lip balm litter the floor of the giant case that protects the ancient space of a museum.

The COVID-19 pandemic has meant a break in the ship’s normal display cleaning routine at the US Space and Rocket Center, located near NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. But workers are sprucing up the spacecraft for the 50th anniversary of its April 1972 flight.

Gary Phillips uses a brush and vacuum cleaner to clean the Apollo 16 lunar spacecraft at the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama on Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022. Following a hiatus in routine maintenance due to the coronavirus pandemic COVID-19, museum beautifies antique spacecraft ahead of events marking 50th anniversary of its flight in 1972. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves)

Using microfiber towels, extension poles, brushes, dust wands and vacuum cleaners, a team recently cleaned the 6.5-tonne, nearly 11-foot-tall capsule and wiped down its case in glass, located under a huge Saturn V rocket suspended from the ceiling. They pulled out dozens of items that people had stuck through the cracks in the casing.

In addition to overseeing the cleaning, consultant curator Ed Stewart taught museum staff how to care for the capsule, which is on loan from the Smithsonian Institution and has been on display in the “rocket town” of Huntsville since the 1970s.

Workers clean the Apollo 16 spacecraft ahead of the 50th anniversary
Gary Phillips is shown through a hatch window cleaning the exterior of the Apollo 16 spacecraft at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022. Following a disruption in routine maintenance due of the COVID-19 pandemic, the museum embellishes the antique spacecraft ahead of events marking the 50th anniversary of its flight in 1972. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves)

Brushing dust off the side of the pod while wearing protective gear, Stewart said the command module was in “fairly good condition” given its age and the length of time since it was last cleaned approximately three years.

“I’m glad to see there aren’t… thick layers of dust. I didn’t see a lot of bug debris or anything like that, so I take that as a very positive sign,” he said.

Workers clean the Apollo 16 spacecraft ahead of the 50th anniversary
Workers open the display case containing the Apollo 16 lunar capsule at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022. Following a disruption in routine maintenance due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the museum is sprucing up the antique spacecraft ahead of events marking the 50th anniversary of its flight to the moon in 1972. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves)

Richard Hoover, a retired NASA astrobiologist who serves as a guide at the museum, recalled a time when visitors could touch the spacecraft decades ago. Some even removed pieces of the charred heat shield that kept the ship from burning up as it reentered Earth’s atmosphere, he said.

“It’s really a travesty because they don’t realize it’s a hugely important piece of space history,” he said.

Workers clean the Apollo 16 spacecraft ahead of the 50th anniversary
A spider’s web clings to the Apollo 16 lunar capsule at the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama on Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022. Following a disruption in routine maintenance due to the COVID-19 pandemic 19, museum workers prepare the ancient spacecraft ahead of events marking the 50th anniversary of its flight to the moon in 1972. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves)

Conservation procedures changed when curators realized that a ship built to withstand the rigors of space travel didn’t hold up well to constant tourist contact, Stewart said. This is why the case surrounding the capsule is sealed.

“Making it last 1,000 years was not on the engineer’s list of requirements to develop them to get astronauts to the moon and back safely,” he said.

Workers clean the Apollo 16 spacecraft ahead of the 50th anniversary
An insect trapped in a spider’s web hangs from the bottom of the Apollo 16 lunar capsule at the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022. Following a disruption in routine maintenance due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the museum cleans up the ancient spacecraft ahead of events marking the 50th anniversary of its flight to the moon in 1972. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves)

Perched atop columns, the capsule – nicknamed “Casper” during the flight – is tilted so visitors can peek inside the open hatch and see the controls and metal-framed seats where astronauts Ken Mattingly, John Young and Charlie Duke traveled to the moon and back.

Duke, who walked on the moon with Young while Mattingly piloted the capsule, is expected to attend a celebration this spring marking the 50th anniversary of the flight’s takeoff on April 16, 1972.

The capsule was cleaned and all potentially hazardous materials removed after the flight, but reminders of its trip to the moon remain inside. Leaning through the hatch to check for dust, Stewart pointed to a few dark spots above his head.

“It’s the fingerprints and handprints of the crew on it,” he said.

Workers clean the Apollo 16 spacecraft ahead of the 50th anniversary
Workers surround the Apollo 16 lunar capsule while cleaning its case at the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama on Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022. Following a disruption in routine maintenance due to the COVID-19 pandemic , the museum embellishes the antique spacecraft ahead of events marking the 50th anniversary of its flight to the moon in 1972. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves)

Workers plan to seal the capsule case further so visitors can’t deposit anything inside, but they’ve been careful not to overdo it with Apollo 16 itself. While it’s easy enough to clean the spaceship with elbow grease, it would destroy the patina that binds it to the story, Stewart said.

“You don’t want to lose any of this, because it’s all part of the mission saga. If you clean it, it’s gone. It’s that extra texture of the story that kind of gets lost in the ether if you make a mistake,” he said.


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