NASA astronaut explains moon samples from 50 years ago that can help future space travel

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- When the Apollo 17 astronaut sealed moon samples, he hoped it would help answer questions. 50 years later, it's finally open, and his hard work is paying off.

ONE OF THE FINAL SEALED MOON MISSION TUBES WAS FINALLY OPENED

They weren't in space suits, but the people dressed in gowns felt like explorers inside the Johnson Space Center this month. 50 years of waiting came down to this moment.

"Everything you do, every movement you're making in the cabinet you know there's a camera rolling," Apollo sample curator, Ryan Zeigler explained.
"People have been waiting 50 years to see these samples, and if you drop it you've just wasted 50 years of science, and however much they spent to go get it."

There were no issues. NASA curators opened the tube collected by Apollo 17.

"You're the first person who actually gets to see the sample after the astronauts sealed it on the moon, and it's really incredible," deputy Apollo curator, Juliane Gross recalled. "It's like history."

IT WASN'T MOON ROCKS THAT BROUGHT EXCITEMENT, BUT THE OTHER SUBSTANCE FOUND INSIDE

The tube was filled with moon dust and rocks. That was expected.

But there was something else inside that could prove more valuable. After 50 years, gasses were still found inside.

NASA waited decades for technology to catch up. Tools that allow researchers to pull atoms from gasses and determine what they are.

"We might have wasted the samples had we tried to analyze the samples in 1971, and now we're not going to waste it," Zeigler explained.

HOW THE DISCOVERY COULD HELP US DETERMINE HOW THE MOON WAS FORMED

On Monday, NASA updated Americans with its plans to return to the moon. The Artemis mission plans to send crewed missions to space in 2024, with the goal of putting people on the moon in 2026.

When astronauts go back to the moon, they'll collect more samples-this time, from the south pole.

"On the south pole, where we go with Artemis, it is really, really cold because there are regions that are shut out permanently so sunlight has never seen that surface," Gross said. "It is so cold that these gases get trapped there as potential ice is."

"When astronauts return, they'll now have something to compare the samples to. The Apollo 17 sample gasses will give researchers an idea of what was on the moon today versus 50 years ago.

"It helps us understand what is from the moon and what is from the outside and how the moon really formed," Gross explained.

Curators know gas was found inside the Apollo 17 sample, but it'll take more time to figure out what gasses they are.

"It'll take a few weeks and we'll get the first cut of results and then a few more months after that until they get the truly detailed results," Zeigler said.

APOLLO 17 ASTRONAUT TOLD ABC13 HOW HE HOPED ONE DAY THOSE SAMPLES WOULD HELP ANSWER QUESTIONS

Jack Schmitt and Gene Cernan were on the moon with the Apollo 17 mission for three days. In 2009, Cernan exclusively talked to ABC13 about the mission.

"What we were trying to do was put a picture of the moon together and in terms who knows what that did tell us, will tell us, or might tell us," Cernan said.

Apollo 17 collected more samples than any other Apollo mission. Cernan said their training took them far away from the Johnson Space Center to make that happen

"We traveled all over the world from Hawaii to a meteor crater in Arizona," Cernan recalled in a 2009 interview. "We become practicing geologists if you will, geological observers."

Cernan died before this sample was opened. The other astronaut with him, Schmitt, is still alive.

Schmitt is still involved with NASA and was curious about this recent opening. "He seems really excited about the whole process," Zeigler said. "He hasn't said anything specific to me like a good job. No, that's not true. He did say a good job, but he didn't say, 'thank God you finally opened it,' or anything like that."

Curiosity after the two astronauts collected samples 240-thousand miles above the earth. An accomplishment still paying off.

"They collected an amazing set of samples from Apollo 17 and it is the best set of samples that we have," Zeigler explained. "It probably taught us more about the moon than any other individual mission."

ONLY A FEW SEALED APOLLO CAPSULES REMAIN SEALED

There are now only three Apollo sealed containers remaining. Depending on how this goes, it could determine how quickly the others open

"We'll decide when to open the next one," Zeigler said. "I doubt it'll be another 50 years." The samples are stored in the lunar vault at the Johnson Space Center near Houston.
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