Grant Heiken (right) and other scientists discuss ideas at a NASA lab. (Grant Heiken)

Grant Heiken (right) and other scientists discuss ideas at a NASA lab. (Grant Heiken)

‘Lunar dirt, rocks and legacy’: A NASA geologist looks back

Grant Heiken, now retired on Whidbey Island, helped analyze moon rocks during project Apollo.

FREELAND — For years, Grant Heiken worked in a windowless lab, always wearing what look like cotton pajamas and often spending 14 hours a day peering at rocks through a window in a sealed box.

“It was a dream job,” the Whidbey Island resident said.

From 1969 to 1974, he worked in the Lunar Receiving Laboratory at NASA’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, taking samples and making observations of the material brought back from Apollo missions. At the time, he was a young vulcanologist who had recently conducted Ph.D. research into explosive volcanic activity on the moon, he said.

Although he lives on in Freeland now and is retired, Heiken recently returned from giving a lecture as part of the Lunar and Planetary Institute’s Cosmic Exploration Series. He was the first presenter in a series called “Apollo to Artemis,” which refers to NASA’s planned mission to bring people back to the moon by 2024.

The institute asked Heiken to speak about “lunar dirt, rocks and legacy” in a recounting of the laboratory’s first five years.

As a 27-year-old, he and other young people were entrusted to work with otherworldly material that had never even come into contact with Earth’s atmosphere. The samples were handled in sealed containers filled with nitrogen, with scientists wearing thick gloves attached to the container. So much was unknown about the rocks that every precaution was taken to avoid contamination.

Upon entry into the lab, the scientists changed into the “pajamas,” a hat and sterilized shoes. If someone had to use the bathroom or leave for any reason, that person had to shower with “soap that wasn’t very pleasant,” change clothes again and leave through an ultraviolet airlock, he said.

“You didn’t drink too much coffee in the morning,” Heiken joked.

About 50 years ago, Grant Heiken examined samples collected on the moon by astronauts. (Grant Heiken)

About 50 years ago, Grant Heiken examined samples collected on the moon by astronauts. (Grant Heiken)

If a glove tore while a scientist was handling one of the samples, it was considered an extremely serious breach. A red button would be pushed, an alarm would go off, the doors would be locked and no one could leave until given the all-clear. The person who was exposed was sent to quarters where Apollo crews were quarantined after missions.

After Apollo 14, NASA officials decided there wasn’t a threat of some lunar plague, and post-mission quarantines were ended, according to the space administration’s website.

Although the long days and stringent sterilization requirements could be tiresome, Heiken maintains it was “the best job in the world.” The analyses of Apollo samples completely transformed understanding of the moon and added insight into the Earth and sun’s history, as well.

For instance, the moon was formed at roughly the same time as Earth, approximately 4.5 billion years ago. The moon’s surface is covered by rock fragments and dust, called lunar regolith, which was formed by meteorite impacts. The rocks and mineral grains are enriched with chemical elements implanted by solar radiation, according to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Thus, the regolith contains a record of sun radiation that’s more than 4 billion years old.

Heiken and his colleagues were some of the first people to bear witness to these and many other discoveries, and he said every paper they wrote was successfully published.

Grant Heiken speaks about geology at a Land Trust event (Whidbey Camano Land Trust)

Grant Heiken speaks about geology at a Land Trust event (Whidbey Camano Land Trust)

Those discoveries were, of course, made possible by the samples collected by astronauts, many of whom Heiken had trained as a geology instructor in the astronaut training program. He took them into desert landscapes similar to what they’d experience on the moon. He said this was more about teaching the astronauts how to be objective observers than how to be geologists.

Years later, he and two others literally wrote the book on the moon, creating an encyclopedic reference on scientific and technical aspects of the space rock. He and fellow space scientist Eric Jones also received funding from NASA to publish transcripts from the Apollo missions, along with reflections from the astronauts and scientific insight and context from Heiken.

They created “On the Moon: The Apollo Journals,” and Heiken’s wife, Jody Heiken, edited it.

Grant and Jody Heiken came to Whidbey in 2004 to retire, although he doesn’t exactly spend his days playing golf — the mere mention of doing this made him cringe.

He’s an active board member of the Whidbey Camano Land Trust and, for a few other entities, he’s provided expertise to reference and educational materials about Whidbey Island geology.

Nicknamed “The Rock” years ago, Whidbey seems like the perfect place for a lunar geologist.

This story originally appeared in the South Whidbey Record, a sibling paper to the Herald.

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