After safely landing on the Sea of Tranquility on the evening of 20th July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had bacon for breakfast before heading out onto the Moon in the early hours of 21st July. (Note that, unlike the Command Module, the Lunar Module (Eagle) only had cold water supplies.) It was Neil Armstrong, of course, who nipped out of first, saying his immortal line as he stepped onto the surface.

Once he’d got the hang of bouncing around on the Moon, Armstrong’s first job was to collect a ‘contingency sample’ (also referred to as a ‘grab specimen’ of moon rocks, so that if something went wrong and he and Buzz had to leave the moon in a hurry, they wouldn’t be coming home empty handed.

Buzz Aldrin on Eagle’s footpad

There was some concern at NASA that when moon dust was exposed to the oxygenated atmosphere inside the Lunar Module, it would combust and explode. Just in case that worry proved to be correct, Aldrin and Armstrong did a quick test when they went back inside Eagle. They put the grab specimen on the cylindrical flat top of the Eagle’s ascent engine cover, and as the cabin filled with air, they watched it closely to see if it would smoke and smoulder.

“If it did, we’d stop pressurisation, open the hatch and toss it out. But nothing happened. We got back to the business of readying for departure from the moon,” Aldrin said.

Sample 10024.  NASA photo S69-46031

Apollo moonwalkers (AKA the “dusty dozen”) generally remarked on the smell of moon dust, once they were out of their spacesuits and back in their lunar modules. The consensus is that it smells a bit like spent gunpowder, burned charcoal, or wet ashes.

The current theory is that the reactive nature of the dust is what makes it smell to astronauts. More importantly, moon dust is so abrasive and reactive that it plays havoc with equipment, and causes “lunar hay fever” that takes days to subside after exposure. There is some evidence to suggest that moon dust could cause serious illnesses, like cancer, but with very little sample material to examine, the exact hazards posed by the dust remain largely unknown. We do know that lunar dust and rocks aren’t toxic to plants, although on their own they don’t support plant life.

Moon gardening: collecting samples with tongs during Apollo 12
[Image credit: NASA]

In a somewhat bizarre twist, the sample collection bag in which Armstrong collected the contingency sample ended up being sold by mistake. When called upon to authenticate the bag, NASA realised the error, and tried to keep it. A court case decided that the sale was legal, and in 2018 it was auctioned again, selling for $1.8 million to an anonymous buyer. NASA’s inventory control systems aren’t the best; according to a 2011 report, they’ve also lost more than 500 moon rock samples.

NASA aren’t the only people to lose track of their moon rock samples. A sample presented to British Prime Minister Harold Wilson in 1970 languished in a cupboard in Downing Street for years. Plaques were made as goodwill gifts for each of the leaders of 135 countries, the United Nations and all 50 US states, with four moon samples weighing 50 milligrams. The British plaque was loaned to the Science Museum in London and then went on a tour of regional museums around Britain, before returning to No. 10 in 1973. It’s still there, although its present location in the building remains unconfirmed.

Still, it’s doing better than the sample presented to the Republic of Ireland, which was lost when a fire broke out at the Dunsink Observatory in Dublin in 1977. The lunar rocks were accidentally discarded in a local landfill along with the debris. More of the goodwill moon rocks have gone missing, some of which have been found by Joseph Gutheinz Jr, a retired NASA special agent known as the “Moon Rock Hunter”. Annoyed by fraudsters selling fake moon rocks after the Apollo 11 landing, Gutheinz launched a sting operation, “Operation Lunar Eclipse, in 1998 to catch them. Instead of uncovering fake moon rocks, they discovered an international trade in stolen ones.

Moon raker: Apollo 17’s astrogeologist Jack Schmitt
[Image credit: NASA]

Nearly 22 kilograms of rock samples were collected during the first moon landing; in total the dusty dozen brought back 382 kilograms. Most of those are still stored at the Lunar Sample Laboratory Facility at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. (You can take a virtual tour of the facility with ArsTechnica.) Other samples are lent out to schools for educational purposes, or to research establishments for investigation. In a slightly ironic twist, scientists have discovered that one of the rocks Apollo astronauts brought back from the moon may have started out on Earth.

Scooper dooper! Sample collection on Apollo 17
[Image credit: NASA]
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