Lunar Sample Scale
One of the great technological challenges to sending humans to the moon was the fact that virtually every piece of the millions of pieces of hardware needed had to be designed from scratch. Almost nothing existed that could be used to get astronauts safely to the moon and back, and to live in the extremely hostile environment of space. Even something as simple as a spring scale for weighing items proved to be a challenge.
It was critically important for Mission Control and the astronauts to know exactly the weight of their spacecraft. This was especially critical for the astronauts on the moon when they had to launch off the surface to rejoin their crewmate awaiting them in lunar orbit to bring them home. Weight was everything. Too much of it, and they would be stranded on the moon without a chance of rescue. When the astronauts landed, they were near maximum weight for their small ascent engine to get them back off the moon. The challenge was how do they bring back several hundred pounds of priceless moon rocks and still get off the moon?
They way NASA solved this was for the astronauts to throw out on the lunar surface every piece of hardware they no longer needed before they lifted off. Large items, like their backpacks, tools, even their cameras were left behind to lighten the load. NASA knew exactly how much these discarded items weighed. What they did not know was how much the gathered moon rocks were going to weigh.
To deal with this, NASA developed a special spring scale for the astronauts to use inside of the Lunar Module to weigh each lunar sample to make sure they had not become overweight. This, itself, became a small engineering challenge. The “weight” of an object is totally dependent on the amount of gravitational force working on it. The problem was the moon’s gravity was only 1/6th that of Earth’s, which made a normal spring scale unusable on the moon. NASA engineers developed a one-of-a-kind scale just for use in the low gravity environment of the moon.
Tucked away in an exhibit case in the museum’s Apollo Gallery is one of the few remaining lunar surface scales left in existence. It is on loan to the museum from the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum, and represents the fact that in the quest of the exploration of space, nothing is simple.