Content type: Essay
Credits: Anne-Florence Neveu (MA student in Media technology, Leiden University 2018-2020)
Year: 2019

Introduction: In this essay, Anne-Florence Neveu uses the object itinerary method to examine the importance and poetics of seemingly inconsequential waste materials on the moon.

Following the trajectory of the York mesh, we see an object manufactured, tested, used and then discarded...
Anne-Florence Neveu

As highly mediated and orchestrated events, moon landings are mythologically hued. Most things left on the moon's surface are done so purposefully and knowingly, as symbols of the achievements of mankind. Alongside these celebratory and symbolic objects are more mundane items, left unthinkingly, but which attest to the more complex reality of the moon landings. This text aims to show how entwined we are with the material world even in outer space.

In order to follow what I call the poetics of the insignificant, I chose to trace back the itinerary of the material York mesh. This is a variety of tightly woven metal mesh which exists in different sizes. It is a category rather than an object and exists without a clear-cut purpose. Ubiquitous in the engineering and chemistry industries, it is used as a filtering and fencing material.

York mesh was present on Apollo Missions 11 (1969), 12 (1969), 14 (1971) and 15 (1971). It was used as padding material in the Apollo Lunar Sample Return Container (ALSRC for short, or 'rock box' colloquially) — an aluminium box with a triple seal designed with ‘a lunar-like vacuum around the samples to protect them from the shock environment of the return flight to earth'. . The York mesh was used to further help dampen vibrations and shock to samples.

York Mesh has been found at each of the successive missions’ different landing sites...

It is likely that some of the mesh returned, as planned, to Earth, however, some of the York mesh from the various ALSRCs were discarded by the aforementioned Apollo missions and left on the moon. York mesh has been found at each of the successive missions’ different landing sites: Mare Tranquillitatis , Oceanus Procellarum , Fra Mauro formation and Rima Hadley/Montes Apenninus . Indeed, if one reads NASA’s transcript of air-to-ground audio from the Apollo 11 mission, it is clear that the York mesh piece from this mission was deliberately left on the Moon following an order received by the astronauts to jettison every piece of equipment which they would have no use for during their flight back to earth, in order to minimize the weight in the spaceship.

Apollo Lunar Sample Return Container (ALSRC), Apollo 11
Apollo Lunar Sample Return Container (ALSRC), Apollo 11 which is now part of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's collection. Image republished under Creative Commons license
A screenshot from the APOLLO LUNAR SAMPLE RETURN CONTAINER - SUMMARY REPORT, by Oak Ridge, 1973 , showing the various components of the ALSRC.

The piece of York mesh used by the Apollo 11 Mission and that was left at Tranquillity base was manufactured by Union Carbide, Nuclear Division, in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. In order to gain approval as packing material it had to undergo intensive testing in the lab so once the woven pieces of York mesh were manufactured, they were sent to the Johnson Research Centre in Houston, Texas. Then, as part of their space training, astronauts practised closing the 'rock box' at waist level in lunar simulation in the Johnson Research Centre.

At the end of the simulation period, the mesh and the lunar sample box were sent to the Kennedy Space Centre (Florida) where the York mesh was sealed inside of the lunar sample box in a lunar-like vacuum to avoid damage that may be caused due to the change of pressure when opened on the moon.

A screenshot of from the APOLLO LUNAR SAMPLE RETURN CONTAINER - SUMMARY REPORT, by Oak Ridge, 1973 showing the manufacturing process of the ALSRC
A screenshot of from the APOLLO LUNAR SAMPLE RETURN CONTAINER - SUMMARY REPORT, by Oak Ridge, 1973 showing the manufacturing process of the ALSRC.


As a part of the pre-launch milestones, the sealed sample box was moved from the vehicle assembly building to the operation and checkout building and finally onto to rocket to begin its cosmic journey. Once on the moon, the ALSRC was opened at Tranquillity base and the York mesh was removed and left where it remains today.

By following the trajectory of the York mesh, we see an object manufactured, tested, and used with a great deal of foresight and care, and then discarded summarily. It is an object which only exists as a part of a bigger apparatus. While the mesh was a component of the ALSRC, it was not integral and was created distinctly from it. When its period of usefulness was over it was quickly cast off. The piece of York mesh left at Tranquility base in 1969, therefore, is a poetic metaphor for how even though objects may have gone through rigorous testing, travelled vast distances and existed in various systems of use, they often end up in our hands for only a fleeting moment before we unthinkingly part with them.