Dr. Draper Putting On Clean Room Suit

Space Engineering and the First Clean Rooms

Dr. Charles Stark Draper

No germs allowed: Clean rooms and the Apollo missions

It takes years and a ton of money to develop and build a spacecraft to explore the galaxies. Every single step in the development and testing is critical, because once it leaves earth it has to be perfect. If a speck of dirt or dust makes its way into a spacecraft during assembly or a nut or bolt are not perfectly tight, they can wreak havoc during spaceflight and the entire mission is ruined. The multi billion dollar James Webb Telescope is a perfect example. During a recent vibration test in California, dozens of loose fasteners fell off. The locknuts were apparently not tightened properly before the test. And there have been other set backs. The launch has now been delayed until 2021.

Clean rooms are an environment where spacecraft and other technology is built with the goal of keeping contaminants away from especially sensitive technology. They allow for greater precision, and originated in the medical field in the 20th century around World War II. There is even a handbook on clean room procedures and practice that was released in 1963.

The Waltham Watch Company was an early forerunner in clean room use, and Draper worked closely with them to learn more about using high precision machining. After all precision would be the key to getting to the moon. Similar to the Guidance and Navigation system, Waltham used gyros in their watches. Draper was curious how Waltham watchmakers were able to get such precision in their watches. The answer? Clean rooms. Controlling the environment and ensuring it was sterile was important for mission success. The Apollo Program was the first time clean rooms were used in developing space technology.

All spacecraft modules were also assembled in clean rooms. Mechanical engineers worked in them would enter through a lobby, where they would have an air shower, clean their shoes, and put on clean aprons, socks, and hair coverings. The pieces of the spacecraft that were manufactured outside of the clean room would be decontaminated upon entering, ready to be completed and sent into space.

Modern clean rooms have adhesive flooring and sometimes several chambers to pass through. Depending on the level of precision, workers can wear as little as hairnets, gloves, and smocks to full on covering suits (think hazmat suits).

The high level of cleanliness mattered mostly in the building of the modules. Astronaut crews took some precautions to removing moon dust and debris upon entering the Lunar Module, dusting each other off, although it was impossible to filter out everything. Dust on board did cause a problem in early Apollo missions – it floated in the cabins and made the modules filthy. The dust was so fine that any filtering systems didn’t do much of anything to get rid of it.

Today, clean rooms are used in many different industries, from biomedical to nanotechnology. When it comes to NASA’s probes and rovers, the decontamination isn’t just for precision anymore. It can help protect the celestial bodies being explored by keeping potentially harmful microorganisms from transferring, or ensure that any findings of life on other planets are not sullied by the possibility they simply hitched a ride from Earth. Clean rooms might not be 100% perfect, but they’re pretty close to it.