In the nearly 50 years since Apollo 11 astronauts first landed on the moon, the more than 842 pounds of rocks, pebbles, sand and dust collected during U.S. moon landings have been variously stolen, lost, found and, in the case of most of the specimens, carefully preserved in nitrogen-filled cabinets to keep the cosmic samples in pristine condition here on Earth.
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin collected and returned the first lunar samples —about “50 pounds (Earth weight) of the loose surface material and selected rocks,” NASA said. “These were stowed in small beta cloth bags and sealed and then packed in two large containers —also sealed —for eventual stowage aboard the LM (lunar module),” a space agency report explained.
Five more moon-landing missions and almost a half-century later, NASA officials say the moon rock still captivates our terrestrial imaginations and may yet unlock more mysteries of the universe.
“We have seen a renewed interest in the moon, which has inspired scientists to ask new questions,” said Andrea Mosie, a scientist and curator of NASA’s lunar specimens at Johnson Space Center in Houston. “By maintaining samples in a pristine state we are able to continue research into the future.”
Mosie says that more than 75% of the materials returned from all of the Apollo moon-landing missions remain locked away in those specially-regulated cabinets in Houston.
But the other nearly 25 percent?
Some were gifted as galactic gestures of diplomacy. President Richard Nixon gave samples to other world leaders for public display.
Today there are 94 samples on exhibit throughout the United States and in 11 foreign countries, a NASA spokesperson said.
The only place in Florida where people can see a moon rock is as the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, where two samples are part of the permanent collection —both collected during Apollo 17, the final mission to the moon in 1972.
“Both are still popular with our guests,” said Rebecca Shireman, a spokesperson for the visitor complex.
Most public displays of the lunar samples are encased in thick glass. But one of the Apollo samples at KSC is open and guests are encouraged to run their fingers over its smooth surface —one of only five places in the world where people can reach out and touch a moon rock. (The other “touchstone” displays are in Houston, Washington D.C., Vancouver and Mexico, according to a listing provided by NASA.)
But some samples collected by the astronauts aren’t so easily accounted for.
A 2011 report by NASA’s Office of Inspector General found that the agency was doing a poor job of keeping track of the samples it loaned out for research and education.
The curation office manages about 140,000 lunar samples, 18,000 meteorite samples and about 5,000 solar wind, comet and cosmic dust samples, according to the report. At the time, more than 26,000 specimens were on loan.
“NASA lacks sufficient controls over its loans of moon rocks and other astromaterials, which increases the risk that these unique resources may be lost,” the inspector general office reported. “Specifically, we found that Curation Office records were inaccurate, researchers could not account for all samples loaned to them, and researchers held samples for extended periods without performing research or returning the samples to NASA.”
In 2002, more than 200 samples were stolen from Johnson Space Center, but were later recovered. In 2010, a researcher reported 18 lunar specimens lost.
Between 1970 and 2010, NASA “confirmed that 517 astromaterial samples have been lost or stolen,” including some that have been found, according to the 2011 report. NASA did not respond to questions from a reporter asking for updated numbers about lost and found materials.
NASA’s focus today is on the long-awaited opening of some of the never before tested pristine samples.
“Because we have been able to protect the rocks for nearly 50 years, the science taking place now is more groundbreaking than we could have ever imagined,” Mosie said. “A wide range of discoveries ranging from the age of the solar system to the discovery of water-ice on the moon are a result of the Apollo samples.”
Known as the Apollo Next Generation Sample Analysis program, new core samples will be investigation by the kind of science and equipment that didn’t exist in the 1970’s.
As methods have improved, new measurements will be taken that couldn’t have been accomplished in the past, Mosie said.
She said that work goes “hand-in-hand with our mission to return to the moon through the Artemis program, where we will leverage a lunar Gateway to get sustainable access to the moon’s South Pole and the natural resources that it contains.”
NASA, she said, hopes that will provide a proving ground for a mission that will one day go far beyond the moon —all the way to Mars.