Terry Slezak might not be a household name like the other luminaries, like Shepard and Glenn and Armstrong, but no list of firsts in the history of U.S. manned spaceflight is complete without his name. And no one is more responsible for creating an enduring legacy of those awe-inspiring early days at NASA’s Johnson Space Center than Slezak, the first human to touch the moon with his bare hands.
For some 35 years, Slezak, now a youthful 80, worked for NASA as a photographer, taking pictures of NASA personnel and programs, while managing the processing of film shot in space, all the way back to the photos John Glenn shot as he orbited Earth in 1962.
Handling Glenn’s film, like most of his tasks for NASA, required ingenuity and creativity. In those early days, film was often exposed to extreme heat and radiation and Slezak had to correct it for balance and density in the developing, he said.
He worked in NASA photo labs through Project Mercury, then the Gemini and Apollo missions in the race to the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing. Early on, he helped train astronauts on taking pictures in space, he told a NASA oral historian. After each mission, he put together photos for press packages and moving pictures for the agency’s public relations push.
After the Apollo 11 moon landing, Slezak famously became the first man on Earth ever to touch moon dust with his bare hands.
‘THAT’S HOW CLOSE WE CAME’
“My job was to download and sterilize the mission film,” he told The Daily News in June, at his daughter Tanya Nuss’ house in Dickinson.
Assigned to the crew reception area of the Lunar Receiving Laboratory, Slezak downplayed NASA’s pervasive fear that deadly germs picked up in space or on the moon could be released on Earth, creating havoc, or worse, infecting an earthling, he said.
To protect against that, astronauts and support personnel, like Slezak, were sterilized and quarantined in the receiving lab for weeks.
“Even undeveloped film shot in space had to be sterilized,” he said.
Slezak and others invented a system for sterilizing film, killing any potential bacteria by bathing it in ethylene oxide gas in lightproof canisters, he said.
Before the Apollo 11 crew’s return to Earth, Slezak simulated the sterilization process repeatedly to protect against glitches, he said.
But just before receiving the Apollo 11 film, arguably some of the most important film ever shot, he came close to messing it up. A practice roll of film exposed to condensed ethylene oxide turned into a melted blob at the bottom of its canister, Slezak said.
At the last minute, he found a mechanical fix that kept the gas from condensing and the moon walk film from potentially being damaged.
“That’s how close we came to losing those pictures,” he said.
On the day Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” E. Aldrin Jr. and Michael Collins returned to NASA and the receiving lab, Slezak and his crew watched as the astronauts carried in big gray boxes containing moon rocks and film magazines.
“Everybody had to have their picture made with them,” Slezak said. “We finally got the film in and I started unpacking it.”
The film magazines were attached to a belt that looked like an ammunition belt, he said. In one of them, Slezak found a note from Buzz Aldrin saying this was the magazine that Armstrong dropped on the moon surface, and that this was important film.
Slezak pulled it out and found it was covered with black material, a fine dust embedded with shiny mica-like sparkly matter, he said. The dust stuck to his fingertips and hands, causing a lot of excitement, in part because this was the first moon dust on Earth and in part because NASA feared he might get infected by mystery moon bacteria.
“Afterward, I had doctors watching me all the time,” he said.
Slezak wasn’t concerned about contamination and was barely amused to see photographs of himself with moon dust on his hands in newspapers the next day. His concern was for the film, he said.
“The dust was really abrasive, and I was afraid that if it got into the magazine it would scratch the film.”
It didn’t, and the photos became part of NASA and world history celebrated this week, the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing and man’s first walk on the moon.
BEHIND THE CAMERA
Slezak spread a pile of photos he shot across the long table in his daughter’s dining room. There was teacher-astronaut Christa McAuliffe practicing floating in NASA’s zero-gravity plane, her dark curls bouncing outward from her head. She would perish with her crew mates aboard Space Shuttle Challenger in the sky above Cape Canaveral in 1986.
There was doctor-astronaut Rhea Seddon, also in the zero-G plane, practicing CPR on a dummy. There was Neil Armstrong blowing out the candles on a cake, celebrating his birthday in quarantine after his famous moon walk.
Here were photos of the watery, rocky surface of Iceland taken from high above the Earth, a mapping project for the Icelandic government Slezak shot as part of a U.S. Geological Survey contract.
On Earth, in his home near Houston, he was better known during those years as an opera singer than as a NASA photographer. He sang with the Houston Grand Opera and other music organizations. Now, in his retirement hometown in the Texas Hill Country, he’s the lead tenor for the Boerne Village Band.
At his daughter’s house, when he’s visiting, Slezak is dad, handy with a hammer and a screwdriver.
In the annals of history, he’ll always be the first man on Earth to touch moon dust with his bare hands, on a rare occasion in his long career when he found himself in front of a camera, not behind it.