Moon Junk: The Stuff We Left Behind

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz (Edwin to his mother) Aldrin made history as part of NASA’s Apollo 11 mission, becoming the first humans to walk on the moon.
  • Armstrong: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. Did you get that, Houston?”
  • Houston: “We did, Neil. Good job. Tell Buzz he can come out now.”
  • Armstrong: “Sure thing. And about that pee bag I’ve got…any suggestions on where I should put it?”
  • Houston: “Uh, just toss it someplace where it won’t get photographed.”

You all know the famous and oft-repeated ‘one giant leap for mankind’ quote. You won’t recognize the last half of the above conversation because a) it’s totally fabricated, and WAIT A SECOND-did NASA seriously leave bags of tinkle on the moon?

Armstrong Trash
Armstrong Trash

Where there are people there is piddle, and as the manned Apollo missions continued and 10 more astronauts hopped around spreading moon dust everywhere there would eventually be 96 bags of not only urine, but also feces and vomit in the mix.

In their effort to expand mankind’s knowledge of its universal surroundings astronauts kind of became the mythical man in the moon’s annoying earthly neighbour that would go to the effort of cleaning up after their dog when it pooped on his lawn, but then toss the evidence bag onto his front porch. There’s a rover joke in there somewhere…

The bags used for storing urine (left) and feces (right) during the Apollo missions. Source: NASA
The bags used for storing urine (left) and feces (right) during the Apollo missions. Source: NASA

During the time leading up to that historic landing which drew 125 million television viewers in the United States alone, both NASA (starting with its early Ranger and Surveyor sortis) and the Soviet Union’s Luna programme (sometimes referred to as Lunik) were responsible for dozens of attempted unmanned ventures to the moon.

When Russia’s Luna 2 became the first spacecraft to finally land on the moon in 1959 it marked not only the inaugural baby steps of mankind’s exploration of the lunar surface but also the opening day of our solar system’s first celestial junkyard.

The Fallen Astronaut
The Fallen Astronaut – Fallen Astronaut is an 8.5-centimeter (3.3 in) aluminium sculpture created by Paul Van Hoeydonck. It is a small stylized figure, meant to depict an astronaut in a spacesuit, intended to commemorate the astronauts and cosmonauts who have died in the advancement of space exploration.

To be fair, one astronaut’s dump is another’s museum, and not all of the 187,333 kilograms (413,000 pounds) of remnants and spacecraft remains strewn on the moon would be classified as ‘garbage’.

Armstrong and Aldrin purposely placed several commemorative items including a small silicon disk with goodwill messages from 73 world leaders, an American flag, and a medal honouring Soviet cosmonauts Yuri Gagarin and Vladimir Komarov, both of whom who had died in-flight in separate accidents during the two years leading up to Apollo 11’s landing.

They also left behind two pairs of space boots, a television camera and its lenses, portable life support systems, tethers, and tools. In total, 106 items from that initial mission are scattered around Tranquility Base, the official name of Apollo 11’s landing site.

Apollo 16 astronaut Charles Duke's family photo left behind on the moon
Apollo 16 astronaut Charles Duke’s family photo left behind on the moon

The five Apollo missions that successfully landed following in 11’s moon boot footsteps helped contribute to the 70-plus vehicles, modules and orbiters that have been abandoned, along with some assistance from India (the Chandrayaan lunar probe), the People’s Republic of China (the Chang’3 program), and Japan (the exploratory SELENE missions).

Since only the United States ever had astronauts on the surface, they’re going to have to take the blame for the food bags, dirtied wet wipes, rakes, backpacks, nail clippers and of course, Alan Shepard’s balls. Golf balls that is, which he whacked around using a 6-iron he smuggled aboard Apollo 14 in a sock.

The two balls stayed on the moon but the club, which was actually a retractable shaft designed for the purpose of rock collecting and outfitted with a 6-iron head, found its way back to Earth and is on display in the United States Golf Association Museum.

The longest drive in history on video. Alan Shephard’s third swing was a good one. It travelled about 300 meters (984 feet) with a six-iron near the Fra Mauro crater on Feb. 6, 1971.

But why all the Apollo-era garbage left behind? It was sanctioned littering in the name of science. If you wanted to collect as many other-worldly specimens as you physically could, you had to lighten the load in order to get them back to Earth. The six Apollo missions brought back 382 kilograms (842 pounds) of core samples, rock, dust, and pebbles.

That was weight that had to be shed somehow in order to safely return home, and that meant luxury items (at least for cramped space travel) like toiletries and blankets had to be tossed overboard.

12 Hasselblad Cameras were left on the moon.
12 Hasselblad Cameras were left on the moon.

It was as recently as 2013 that earthlings were still sending unmanned spacecraft to the moon, when the Chinese National Space Agency added another 5,000 kilograms (11,000 pounds) worth of really expensive gadgets and gizmos to the scrap pile as a result of their Chang’3 lunar landing mission. Fable or not, pretty soon the man in the moon is going to be yelling at all of us to get the hell off his front lawn.

Yutu is an unmanned lunar rover that formed part of the Chinese Chang'e 3 mission to the Moon.
Yutu is an unmanned lunar rover that formed part of the Chinese Chang’e 3 mission to the Moon.

  • Garber, M., 2012. The Trash We’ve Left on the Moon
  • Park, W., 2016. The strangest objects we’ve left on the Moon
  • Meier, A., 2013. Objects of Intrigue: The Golf Club Swung on the Moon
  • Funnell, A., 2014. Why space junk is actually a part of our history on the Moon
  • Minard, A., 2009. 5 Little-Known Facts About the Moon Landing
  • Gott, G., 2016. Weird Things That Have Been Left on the Moon
  • Broadcasting Magazine, 2009. A Remote That Broke All the Records
  • NASA., 2013 Chang’3
  • NASA. Lunar rocks and soils from Apollo missions
  • Lunar Legacy Project. Archeological Inventory at Tranquility Base
  • BBC. Luna programme
  • Wikipedia. List of missions to the Moon