Buried three floors underground in a restricted area is a 50 year old room encapsulated by 20cm thick lead walls, which is so cut off from the world that even the air does not mix with the environment. This is a place of legend and intrigue, acting as a perfect stage for what would be an Alfred Hitchock movie. Containing untouched evidence, this space was part of an era enthralled with going “where no man has gone before”. Committing ourselves to exploring the intersection of design, technology and society, we decided to take a tour of this remote and often overlooked historical landmark with our teammate and resident maker, Chris Gerty.
Location: the basement of NASA Johnson Space Center’s Building 37, the former Lunar Receiving Laboratory, a building originally constructed to quarantine astronauts and material brought back from the Moon during the Apollo program. In order to ensure those returning from the moon did not contaminate society with much feared space cooties, crews recovered from the sea walked from their helicopter to an isolation van on the deck of an aircraft carrier and were brought to the LRL for quarantine. Samples of rock and regolith that the astronauts collected and brought back were flown directly to the LRL and initially analyzed 50 ft below the building in glovebox vacuum chambers in a Lab called the Radiation Counting Laboratory. This facility was important for measuring the natural radioactivity of the lunar samples, some of which is caused by cosmic rays. Half a century later, the room sits relatively unused and forgotten.
Our mission: to uncover unused hardware stored in this neglected locale with hopes of inviting the hacker community to unravel application to today. This subterranean area is a space which holds some of the clues and links to our technological history. In that history, we are seeking the untold stories of the past. Today, we have a handbag of tools which allow us to create to our minds’ desire. But between these objects of antiquity and the modern age, there is a lapse in things unseen. By exploring these spaces and observing how & way the past was assembled, we can create a better future with the logical intelligence of the space age and the modern resources of today.
While we did discover some pretty cool instruments, what was more impressive was the experience. Crossing through the gate into the dedicated elevator heightened the sense of respect for the content that the space contained. Our ears popped as we descended to the lowest point on the Johnson Space Center’s grounds, envisioning the uncertainty and excitement harbored by the few employees who had the chance to view this portal. We playfully took photos next to abandoned lead boxes and bricks in our converse & jeans, as our escort described the suits that encapsulated the staff that had spent long hours cataloging and analyzing materials that literally were out-of-this world. The drab colors, fluorescent lighting, heavy materials, and unfamiliar layout of the room reinforced the facilities’ purpose — to contain and understand the unknown. We developed a new admiration for these cold war pioneers who overcame fear and took unprecedented risks each mission and every day spent researching underground. The science and insight gained from the Apollo program would yield numerous spinoffs, position the US a leader in STEM, and inspire so many, including young women like ourselves, to reach for the stars.
What other physical discoveries throughout history have been treated with such deliberate design and scientific care: titanic artifacts, cave drawings, Mars meteorites? We invite you to comment and share your thoughts as we explore the past and the future together.