Survivor! (?) The Story of S. Mitis on the Moon
Proceedings of a NASA history symposium, “Solar System Exploration @ 50,” held 25-26 October 2012 in Washington, D.C., Forthcoming
22 Pages Posted: 11 Jul 2016
Date Written: October 25, 2012
The story of how bacteria from Earth survived for more than two years on the surface of the Moon is well known in the annals of the U.S. space program, and beyond. In places ranging from peer-reviewed journals to official space-agency sources, Wikipedia, and fringe-y Web sites such as the self-explanatory “UFO Updates List” and “Cosmic Ancestry,” an archive maintained by a “strong-panspermia” advocate, the account of how technicians at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) found viable Streptococcus mitis (S. mitis) bacteria inside equipment retrieved from the Moon and returned to Earth by astronauts has been replicated widely and reported as fact for decades.
Some skeptics have argued over the years, however, that what have been described as bacteria that survived a roundtrip to the Moon and back were actually bacteria that never left Earth. The story involves a set of claims that were disputed when they were first made public and may still be in dispute today.
In this chapter I will show how this story of the remarkable survival of Earth bacteria in the harsh lunar environment for a prolonged period of time is not fact but folklore. More than 30 years after the story was first told, it is not likely that it can be proven definitively true or false. However, the evidence now points to “false,” largely thanks to the unearthing of old visual records of clean-room procedures. I make the case here that the claim that S. mitis traveled from Earth to the Moon, returned to Earth, and came back to life in a lab does not qualify as scientific truth. I explore this story as an interesting case in the social construction of scientific facts, and I consider how a few pictures can belie thousands of words.
Keywords: social construction, space history, space science, claims, facts
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