The last time the Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia traveled the US was in 1970. Almost 50 years later, the historic spacecraft that helped take us to the Moon and back is headed out on the road for a nationwide tour. Following the tour, the Command Module will be placed on permanent display in the exhibition Destination Moon, scheduled to open in 2020 at the Museum in Washington, DC. The Museum’s conservation team will spend the next six months preparing the artifact for travel and display.
Conservator Lisa Young shares what the next few months will look like and what she’s most interested in finding out about Columbia.
How do you begin a massive conservation project like this?
First, we need to document everything really carefully. We will use existing 3D scans and high-resolution photography to look closely at the individual materials on the Command Module. Once we identify the different materials, we’ll record their condition (whether or not they are chemically and physically stable) and try to predict how they might degrade in the years to come. From that, we can create a treatment plan that will slow down this process.
How do you begin to identify the different materials that make up the Command Module?
We’ve been doing several types of non-destructive analysis (where the materials are analyzed in place and no sampling occurs), which has been fun. We know a lot thanks to historical and technical documentation from NASA, but we don’t know exactly how the materials have changed since their flight. It’s important for us to know this so that our treatment doesn’t negatively impact these historic materials and any evidence of its mission in space.
We’ve used Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) to help identify organic materials and XRF (X-ray fluorescence) to identify non-organic materials. Just the other day, we were examining two vents on the Module that were used to expel water and urine during flight. It turns out the vents were covered in pure gold. It makes sense; a heater was used to warm the liquids before they were expelled to prevent the liquid from freezing to the exterior of the Module. Gold is a great conductor of heat.
Once you have a plan in place, how you do go about treating the artifact?
We’ll divide treatment into three main parts: The heat shield, the exterior, and then the interior.
We know the heat shield will be difficult. It’s very powdery. Much of the material was burned away by reentry. The epoxy that held the matrix of the heat shield material together is now just carbon, almost like the wood leftover from a fire. We’ll have to decide whether or not we address this in treatment. If we treat those ablated materials, we wouldn’t want to introduce any type of chemical into the material that could impede future analysis. But if we don’t treat those areas, we may lose some of it.
Where do you expect to find the most surprises?
The interior. It hasn’t been accessed a lot. The last time we accessed the interior was for 3D scanning in March 2016 and we found “graffiti” put there by the astronauts. There may be more stories like that hidden in there. The interior will also have more sensitive materials and more soft synthetic fabrics. We also know that the capsule was exposed to seawater upon reentry and then it was treated for possible decontamination when it returned to Earth.
Has anything helped you prepare for this work?
It was nice that I had an opportunity to work on Gemini and Mercury capsules before this. I had time to research all the small parts and the engineering behind how the spacecraft work. You can see commonalities in the spacecraft. They’re built similarly, but with each new mission the complexity increases. That work will help me jump right into the conservation of Columbia.
What might surprise people about the conservation process?
The most common question I get is why don’t we already know all of this? Why is there missing information about the materials or how the Command Module was built? What I continually tell people is that the primary artifact tells the story. Not everything was documented. Even NASA has come back to study it—the Orion capsule will use many of the same materials and those chemical formulas need to be recreated.
You can find out if the Command Module is visiting a city near you. In the meantime, Columbia will be on display at the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, while Lisa and her colleagues work to conserve it.