Jun Kwon Shin ||
“It’s come on pretty fast,” radioed Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison “Jack” Schmitt with a hoarse voice, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) reports. And as the allergic reactions raged on for hours, the first man to have caught extraterrestrial hay fever was recorded.
It all began when the crew returned to Challenger, the Apollo 17 lunar module, after their first extravehicular activity (EVA) or “moonwalk.” Upon entering the cabin, they proceeded to take their helmets and gloves off. One man was visibly having an alarming reaction due to this, and the person in question was none other than Schmitt. He reported that the suspect for the sudden allergic reaction was due to the lunar dust that was tracked back in the cabin. “First time I smelled the dust I had an allergic reaction, the inside of my nose became swollen, you could hear it in my voice,” quoted Schmitt, during his speech at the Starmus space festival in Zurich.
Lunar dust or moon dust are the remnants of meteorite collisions formed over the course of millions of years. It was commented by Apollo 17 astronauts to feel “as soft as snow, yet strangely abrasive.” Its abrasive nature is the result of the moon’s lack of an atmosphere and water, which makes it difficult for the dust to erode. The crew found it annoyingly difficult to brush off the dust from their protective gears whenever they returned to the cabin from their EVAs. Some dust would always make its way inside, leading to the dilemma of Schmitt.
Due to its harmful nature, NASA has shown concern about the dust posing as a health hazard for future astronomers. Russell Kerschmann, a pathologist at the NASA Ames Research Center, articulated that: “In some ways, lunar dust resembles the silica dust on Earth that causes silicosis, a serious disease.” Just like silica dust, lunar dust can cause severe damage to human lungs once it is ingested. An experiment conducted by the researchers of Stony Brook University proved that when lung cells are exposed to lunar dust, 90% of them could be killed. In addition to that, the dust is dangerously abrasive, as it was able to penetrate through layers of Kevlar-like material on the astronomers’ boots. Schmitt expounded in his interview with Wired that “We need to understand what the biological effects are, because there’s always the possibility that engineering might fail.” He also added in the same interview that “dust is the number one environmental problem in the moon.”
Before space agencies plan to set up a settlement on the moon, scientists will have to learn more about lunar dust and devise engineering solutions to tackle its unique nature. Without a deep understanding of lunar dust, a base on the moon is no more than a pipe dream.