18 July 2009

our lunar heritage

One of my earliest memories is being sat down in front of our black and white television set to watch the first moon landing. I couldn't have told you the date, but given that Monday 20 July will be the 40th anniversary, I know that I was 4 years old at the time. Of course, many of us have stories about this moment that changed our history.

Over the years, ICS has conserved some fascinating artefacts and industrial objects, but today I'm writing about a project that some of our fellow conservators at Conservation Solutions in the US worked on for several years.

At the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, the only remaining space-ready Saturn V rocket has been on display for over thirty years. Designed as a single-use object, that merely had to survive the very high loads during the launch acceleration, and ravaged by the extremely harsh climate in Houston (high temperatures, high humidity, high ozone and high salinity, not to mention the occasional hurricane), this rocket was in a very poor state in 2002 when the conservation works commenced.

I was fortunate enough to visit the site in November 2004 when Conservation Solutions had completed much of their investigation, analysis, trials and planning works ... and were about to commence the task of conserving the 100m long rocket. You can read more about the project here and here.

For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of this conservation project was the research work that the Conservation Solutions team had to undertake in order to discover just what materials had been used. Despite the rocket having only been built during the 1960s, less than 40 years previously, and despite being part of the enormous space program run by the USA at the time, records of the construction of the Saturn V rocket were incredibly difficult to obtain. Indeed, I understand that much of the information about the construction was gleaned from amateur rocket enthusiasts who had collected memorabilia and magazine articles from the 1960s, and who could tell, admittedly anecdotal, stories about the challenges of building and launching the rockets.

Having identified the materials of construction, another enormously challenging task for Conservation Solutions was to develop appropriate conservation techniques for modern materials that were no longer made, yet for which little, if any, previous conservation work had ever been undertaken.

And of course, for conservators, the challenge of scale was almost overwhelming. Used to working with scalpels and dentist drills, the tools of choice for conserving the Saturn V rocket included ultra-high pressure water jets.

The challenges of conserving the artefacts of our industrial and technological heritage are enormous - not only are there questions of authenticity around materials and finishes, but there are also the challenges of function and operability ... and there are always conflicts between these that have to be resolved. Planning can take into consideration many eventualities, but inevitably we face surprises once the conservation works begin.

David West
International Conservation Services

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