Rights: The University of Waikato Published 15 April 2009 Download

The moon landing had a great side-effect for science. When rocks were brought back from the moon, scientists decided they wanted to be able to study them in an environment where no terrestrial (Earth-based) contaminants could be found. As a result, clean labs were built that avoided all contamination. Other scientists started to use these clean labs for their own research. University of Otago Professor Keith Hunter experienced such labs when he was working in a clean lab in France. When he returned to New Zealand, he convinced the University of Otago that this was a good way to work, and a clean lab was built.

Point of interest
Think about how space science practices informed Keith Hunter’s idea of a clean lab.


Where we made a quantum leap was in the 70s during the Apollo lunar programme, when some laboratories – called clean rooms –were built around the world to study lunar rocks. And here the scientists sat down and said, “We want to look at these rocks, and we want to make absolutely certain we don't contaminate them with anything terrestrial. And then we would like to see if there is any life, any sign of life on the moon.” Of course, there wasn't any sign of life, but by building these laboratories where they painstakingly made it possible to handle the samples without dust and other forms of contamination getting in, they were able to examine the true nature of the lunar rocks. And after that project was over, some of the scientists began using the same laboratory to study terrestrial samples, and they realised they had been contaminating things for decades, and so it became obvious this is the way it needed to go. So when I came back to New Zealand in 1979 – I had been working in a laboratory in Paris, where we had one of those labs, and I worked in the lab – and I thought, “This is a great idea”, and the university put up the money to build the lab.