The dirt on NASA’s clean room
New Atlas' Michael Franco finds out what it takes to enter a clean room at NASA. It involves a german shepherd, booties, a room filled with airplane spray nozzles and a line he definitely shouldn't have crossed. Oh, and no nylon. Definitely no nylon.
The heat from the Florida sun is a force searing its way through my skin in search of bone to bake. Not only does it drop from above, but it radiates from the hot black tarmac on which myself and a handful of others stand uncomfortably. Our belongings have been lined up in a row alongside us. And then the dog arrives.
It's a beautiful specimen of a german shepherd, long and enthusiastic, being led by a sturdy military-type with a buzzcut wearing what looks like mercenary gear. The dog is led down the row of belongings once. Then twice. Then he and his owner head back to their truck and drive off. We have passed. We are free to go into the blessed blast of cool air on the bus that's been idling alongside us for what seems like hours, but has really only been about 15 minutes.
No, this isn't the plot from some tourist-runs-into-trouble B-movie. It's how my recent press trip to NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Titusville, Florida began.
Myself and a small cadre of other journalists were there on Saturday to get a sneak peek at the space agency's new OSIRIS-REx satellite. Among a few other mission goals, the spacecraft will be obtaining a pristine sample of the regolith – or soil – from an asteroid known as Bennu. Because of that pristine part, precautions for the visit were high.
OSIRIS-REx is currently in a clean room at the KSC and NASA has every intention of keeping the room free of potential contaminants. The reason is simple – anything that's introduced to the satellite at this point could travel to space on its surface and get mixed up in the pure sample of space-rock dirt it will be bringing back to Earth in 2023. When that sample returns, NASA will be analyzing it for amino acids – one of the basic building-blocks of life – and if the satellite gets a bit of human on it before it goes, it could blow the whole thing.
So, while we're on the bus to the clean-room facility, our guide reiterates what we all received in an email prior to the trip:
Long pants and closed-toe shoes must be worn. No tank tops, shorts or skirts will be permitted. Full clean-room attire must be worn and will be furnished. Attendees may not wear perfume, cologne, hair spray, nail polish or makeup. Those wearing makeup will be required to remove it prior to entry. No piercings of any kind are permitted in the PHSF (Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility) … Photographers will need to clean camera equipment under the supervision of contamination control specialists … Non-essential equipment, such as suede, leather or vinyl camera bags, carrying cases, camera straps, accessories with Velcro and selfie sticks must be left outside the clean room. No notebook paper, pencils or click-type ballpoint pens are permitted; clean-room paper will be provided.
After a safety briefing in which we are told that the satellite is loaded with hydrazine fuel and has small explosives on board, we are finally allowed to begin the entry process.
First, I have to put my shoe-clad feet in a cleaner that's similar to those found in classic hotel lobbies. It sucks my foot in and brushes down all the surfaces. Next, we are asked to put blue booties atop our shoes and enter the staging area.
Here, a team of NASA employees, all of whom take "pristine" very seriously, help us get dressed. Face mask and hairnet first, followed by a hood and full-body suit. Another set of booties go over the blue ones and get tied, and I put nitrile gloves on both hands, which are then secured to the suit with orange tape. As I'm dressing, another NASA worker wipes down my camera and recorder.
We will only have 30 minutes with the satellite, so the pace is snappy.
Once we're all prepped, I am allowed to take my camera and recorder back, and myself and a colleague step into a long narrow room where air nozzles like those found above airline seats stud the side walls. Once the door shuts, the nozzles turn on and we are encouraged to take an air shower.
Finally we're let into the clean room where the satellite sits at one end, and the even more impressive fairing that will carry it into space sits at the other. We are required to wipe our gloves down with an alcohol solution and then set free to explore.
Unfortunately, I wasn't told about the orange line on the floor. So while I was practically crawling inside the fairing, marveling at how amazing it was that I could be so close to the inside of something that will soon be hurtling into outer space, I get a tap on my shoulder asking me to step behind the orange tape on the ground. The mission team members who ask me to back up made a bit of a joke about how I would now have to be eliminated, and we all laugh a little nervously.
I go about my photo-taking tour, this time being obsessive about staying behind the orange tape and soon I am visited by one of the mission members. Turns out, I really wasn't supposed to step over that tape, so I'm now being asked to delete the photos I took. Gulp. After happily complying, I'm allowed to wander – supervision free – through the facility and even interview the mission's principal investigator, Dante Lauretta. Thankfully, the NASA folks are a pretty forgiving lot.
Not only does the space agency take great precautions with the people who enter and exit the room, but they had to take precautions with the facility itself.
"This facility had housed lots of things with amino acid properties that you never think of: tie straps, velcro – all over the crane consoles, boxes and everything," NASA's Linda Lee Matthias told me. "We had to walk every square inch of this room from 12 feet down, purge it all and replace it with stainless steel tie straps, metal mop buckets for the cleaners, or other types of materials. It went on and on and it took a really good collective team that was able to communicate together with one goal – and that's mission success."
So what, in the end, is the big deal about nylon?
"It's kind of like an incubator for amino acids," Matthias said. "It's primarily a touch-transfer hazard." So in other words, if someone touched a piece of nylon where some amino acids were hanging out and then touched the satellite, those aminos could get mixed up in the return sample and give a false read.
Matthias also revealed that the craft had received its final wipe-down and was ready to be moved into its fairing. Once there, the capsule will be closed and the bottom will be sealed with a temporary barrier that will be removed once it's placed atop the Atlas V rocket that will carry it skyward on the planned mission launch date of September 8.
So there you have it. If you ever get invited to a NASA clean room, be sure to leave your nylons at home, be prepared to look a little silly, and do not – no matter what – step over the orange line.
This video provides more details about the trajectory of the OSIRIS-REx satellite.