Science: To Keep the Moon Virgin

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Next week the U.S. will try to send a rocket around the moon. At the same time or soon after, the Russians may be tempted to outdo the U.S. by hitting the moon with a big rocket. Last week scientists of the International Council of Scientific Unions met in Washington to plead with both to make haste with due care.

To scientists, the crucial point is this: in all the world, there is nothing like the moon. It is, in effect, a superbly preserved relic of the early days of the solar system, sealed off by space and time from contamination by the germs, clouds, and forms of living matter that have developed on the earth. The danger is, reported the council's Committee on Contamination by Extra-Terrestrial Exploration (CETEX), that heedless exploration efforts may contaminate the moon before it can be properly studied in its virgin state.

The moon is highly susceptible, warned CETEX, because its atmosphere contains so little matter (only 10 to 100 tons); even a flare bright enough to be seen from the earth might release enough volatile material to contaminate it seriously.

Precious Dust. Worst damage would be done by a nuclear explosion, fission or fusion. It would contaminate the lunar atmosphere with radioactive gases and sprinkle the moon's surface with radioactive debris. Almost as bad would be the big, backward-pushing retrorockets that would be needed to bring a small packet of instruments to a soft landing on the moon; they would require the release of so much burned fuel that the moon's tenuous atmosphere would never be the same again.

Even more interesting to scientists than the moon's atmosphere is the dust that is believed to cover much of its surface. CETEX does not think that anything short of a nuclear explosion would directly contaminate the dust. CETEX'S concern is more subtle. Some scientists believe that the earth-type life did not evolve entirely on the earth in its early stages. Fairly large and complex organic molecules may have formed from primeval gases out in space itself. When these molecules sifted down on the earth's surface, they may have reacted with one another and eventually grown into "living molecules," the earliest living things that could reproduce their kind.

The same space-formed molecules must have sifted down on the moon, and some of them may be preserved in the lunar dust. In fact, the CETEX scientists think it is possible that some "pre-life" processes of molecule building may still be taking place on the moon.

Terrestrial Templates. Arriving on the moon, large molecules from the bodies of dogs, men, or even from bacteria might take part in the moon's pre-life processes, acting as templates on which new molecules could form. Then scientists could never describe with confidence the true "pre-life" of the moon as it existed before the arrival of the terrestrial intruders. It would do no good to sterilize a rocket before it left the earth. Dead bacteria clinging to it, or even the molecules of the organic germicide used to kill the bacteria, might be enough to falsify the record.

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