A particularly important aspect of the Surveyor 3 analysis was the search for living material on the spacecraft. Surveyor was not sterilized prior to launch, and scientists wanted to know if terrestrial microorganisms had survived for two and a half years in space.
One research group found a small amount of the bacterium Streptococcus mitis in a piece of foam from inside the TV camera. Culture plates from Surveyor 3 camera foam samples(1 cc volume of polyurethane foam)were prepared, and samples sent to the US Communicable Disease Center at Atlanta, Georgia, which confirmed it as Streptococcus mitis, a common harmless bacteria from the nose, mouth and throat in humans. The NASA researchers believed that these bacteria had survived in this location since before launch. They only found evidence for living material in one of 33 samples from various parts of Surveyor that they cultured. This was attributed to the camera not being sterilized on Earth prior to its launch two and a half years previously and this is still the conclusion accepted by NASA for these findings. The 50-100 organisms survived launch, space vacuum, 3 years of radiation exposure, deep-freeze at an average temperature of only 20 degrees above absolute zero, and no nutrient, water or energy source. The United States landed 5 Surveyors on the Moon; Surveyor 3 was the only one of the Surveyors visited by any of the six Apollo landings. No other life forms were found in soil samples retrieved by the Apollo missions or by two Soviet unmanned sampling missions, although amino acids - not necessarily of biological origin - were found in soil retrieved by the Apollo astronauts.
Another research group found no evidence of life inside a section of electrical cable. Some people associated with the curation of the Surveyor 3 materials have suggested that the one positive detection of life may be the result of accidental contamination of the material after it was returned to Earth. Other explanations include that a breach of sterile procedure took place at just the right time to produce a false positive result. One of the implements being used to scrape samples off the Surveyor parts could have been laid down on a non-sterile laboratory bench, and then was used to collect surface samples for culturing. It is, therefore, quite possible that the microorganisms were transferred to the camera after its return to Earth. Furthermore, the Surveyor 3 camera was returned from the Moon in a nylon duffel bag, and was not in the type of sealed airtight metal container used to return lunar samples in the early Apollo missions. It is therefore possible that it was contaminated by the astronauts and the environment in the Apollo 12 capsule itself. The bacterial test is now non-repeatable because the parts were subsequently taken out of quarantine and fully re-exposed to terrestrial conditions (the Surveyor 3 camera is now on display in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.). This subject was covered in the 2008 Discovery Channel documentary series, When We Left Earth.
|Mission||Launch/Start Date||Landing/End Date||Duration|
|Apollo 12||11/14/1969||11/24/1969||10 days|