When a Thorough Cleaning Means Leaving Behind Fingerprints

Cleaners leave traces of history on the Apollo 16 capsule

February 14, 2022

Cleaning crews at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama recently cleaned the Apollo 16 spacecraft for the 50th anniversary of its April 1972 flight, Minnesota Public Radio reports. But they purposely did not leave it spotless.

The space capsule was dusty after years of display in the museum, with cobwebs clinging to its surface. The crews used microfiber towels, extension poles, brushes, and vacuums to clean the 6.5-ton, nearly 11-foot-tall capsule and its glass enclosure. They removed dozens of items that people had stuck through cracks in the case, including business cards, a pencil, coins, a spoon, and a tube of lip balm.

When the museum first received the capsule, visitors could touch the spacecraft, and some even picked off pieces of the charred heat shield that protected the ship from burning up while reentering Earth’s atmosphere. Preservationists soon realized that a spaceship built to withstand the rigors of space travel didn’t hold up well under the constant touch of tourists, so they placed it in a sealed case.

Workers plan to further seal the capsule’s case, so visitors won’t be able to deposit anything inside, but the cleaners were careful not to do too much to Apollo 16 itself. Scrubbing it down would remove important traces of history, including the astronauts’ fingerprints and handprints which are visible as dark spots inside the capsule.

“You don’t want to lose any of that, because that is all part of the saga of the mission. If you clean it, it’s gone,” said Ed Steward, a consulting curating who was overseeing the cleaning crew.

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