NASA turned to Oak Ridge for help with moon landing

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OAK RIDGE, Tenn. (WVLT) - "There was no objective more important to science than the collection and return of lunar samples to the surface."

Courtesy: NASA

Sure enough, when NASA astronauts first landed on the moon 50 years ago this week, they went right to work... digging in the dirt.

The tools the astronauts used were made and designed right here in East Tennessee.

NASA knew that for it's very exclusive moon dirt, it would need to think outside the box, for, well, its box problem.

"They needed a box that didn't have any more seams than absolutely necessary," Ray Smith said. Smith worked at Y-12 for 48 years. Now retired, he's the Oak Ridge city historian.

Mission control and its pencil-thin ties knew where to turn.

"Y-12 already had work going on with NASA in the '60s. They had done some experiments for the Gemini program," Smith said.

Back in the days before the 3-D printer, NASA asked Y-12 engineers to machine these moon boxes out of solid blocks of aluminum. The Y-12 workers were so proud of their work, that the box made a final appearance.

"We allowed the moon box to go to a funeral. Because the man who'd worked on the box was so proud of what he'd done, his family wanted to be able to recognize that," Smith said.

Ray Smith would know. He retired at Y-12 after 48 years. He showed WVLT News how the moonbox works at the American Museum of Science and Energy. Another box lives at the Smithsonian. All were built by local hands.

"Also the bags that they put the materials in, some of those were actually knitted at the knitting nook here in Oak Ridge," Smith said.

Some of that moon dust ended up right back here.

"There was a former professor at UT, Larry Taylor, in analyzing some of the samples that came back from Apollo," Dr. Noah Petro said.

NASA's Dr. Noah Petro says he isn't a rocket scientist, but a rock scientist. He told us why getting the dust back on Earth was so important, then and now.

"The samples that returned from Apollo, all tell us something about how to live in space," Dr. Petro said.

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