Different Directions

Different Directions

Moon Rock FAQs

To many, going to the moon was just history, and stale at that. But if you ever get a chance, climb into a World War II B25 or 29, and just look at the cockpit array -- it was top of the line, the best technology working at the time.

The Apollo equipment was just the same. The highest of technical excellence, the cutting edge... and yes the bleeding edge also -- and nobody yet has repeated the feat of lifting off from this planet, taking astronauts to the Moon, landing, exploring, and returning. Period. Nobody.

And so, what do we know about this feat?

And what did we learn?

How Many Missions Went to the Moon?
Six different Apollo missions gathered moon samples, beginning with Apollo 11, which landed on the moon July 20, 1969.

Text Box:  Apollo 11 Clears Launch Tower -- NASA S69-39526
Apollo 11 clears launch tower -- NASA S69-39526

The last Lunar Mission was Apollo 17 in 1974.

Text Box:  The only night launch done during Apollo. NASA 72-H-1515
The only night launch done during Apollo. NASA 72-H-1515

All but Apollo 13 successfully landed on the moon and were able to collect and bring back lunar samples.

This is the first lunar sample that was photographed in detail in the Lunar Receiving laboratory at the Manned Spacecraft Center. This photograph shows a granular, fine-grained, mafic (iron magnesium rich) rock. (July 26, 1969)
Picture courtesy of NASA.

And remember: There was a space race going on between the U.S. And the Soviet Union.

The Russians had a series of robotic spacecraft missions sent to the Moon by the Soviet Union between 1959 and 1976.

One of the major achievements of the Russian Luna program, with Luna 16, Luna 20 and Luna 24 spacecrafts, was the collection of lunar soil and to return them to Earth, by 1970. The program returned 0.326 kg of lunar samples. The Luna missions were the first space-exploration sample return missions to rely solely on advanced robotics.

Text Box:  Luna 15 Space craft.	Under terms of the GNU Free Documentation License
Luna 15 Space craft. Under terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

Luna 15, also designed to return soil samples from the lunar surface, holds the significance of undergoing its mission at the same time as the historic Apollo 11 mission. Luna 15 was a last-ditch attempt to steal thunder from the potential American success, for it would have returned lunar samples to Earth before the Apollo astronauts could do so.

However, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were already on the lunar surface when Luna 15 began its descent, and the spacecraft crashed into a mountain minutes later.

However, in the intervening time interval, the two countries have shared samples for study.

How Many Moon Rocks are There?
In all, 840+ pounds of rocks were brought back from the moon. The samples ranged from loose dirt to large rocks.

Some were made into "thin sections," which are slices of rock only microns thick that can be viewed through a microscope.

This thin section is Apollo 12 lunar sample number 12057.27, under polarized light.

The lavender minerals are pyrexene; the black mineral is ilmenite; the white and brown, feldspar;
and the remainder, olivine. NASA/courtesy of nasaimages.org

Where Are the Moon Rocks Kept and Can I Get to Touch One?
Most of the moon rocks are in Houston, Texas at the Johnson Space Center's Building 31, called the Lunar Facility. It was designed as a safe, secure, clean building.

Text Box:  Lunar Sample Processing Facility 		NASA JSC
Lunar Sample Processing Facility NASA JSC

About 20 percent of the moon rocks are kept nearby in another building as a sort of safe deposit box, in case disaster were to strike Building 31.

A few of the moon rocks are on exhibit at various museums around the country. At the American Museum of Natural History in New York, you can see three rock samples. The Smithsonian in Washington, DC has a few samples you can actually touch, but from years of big and little hands touching them, they've gotten pretty dirty!

Are Moon Rocks Like Earth Rocks?

"Moon rocks are absolutely unique," says Dr. David McKay, Chief Scientist for Planetary Science and Exploration at NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC). McKay is a member of the group that oversees the Lunar Sample Laboratory Facility at JSC where most of the Moon rocks are stored. "They differ from Earth rocks in many respects," he added.

"For example," explains Dr. Marc Norman, a lunar geologist at the University of Tasmania, "lunar samples have almost no water trapped in their crystal structure, and common substances such as clay minerals that are ubiquitous on Earth are totally absent in Moon rocks."

"We've found particles of fresh glass in Moon rocks that were produced by explosive volcanic activity and by meteorite impacts over 3 billion years ago," added Norman. "The presence of water on Earth rapidly breaks down such volcanic glass in only a few million years."

The moon has many different types of rock. But most are breccias -- hard, solid rocks that have broken up and formed back together in different combinations.

Since the moon is constantly changing from the impact of meteors, breccias are continually being formed. Breccias aren't unique to the moon. Volcanic areas on earth have a lot of breccias, as well. Many of the moon rocks are a very dense hard rock called basalt that is also a very common rock on earth. For example, most of Hawaii is basalt.

The biggest surprise about moon rocks is that over 80 percent of the moon seems to be light colored feldspar, which is also the most common rock on earth.

This supports a theory that at one time the entire surface of the moon was molten, just one huge magma ocean 300-400 miles deep! As it cooled, the lighter minerals, like feldspar, floated to the top. The heavier ones, like the darker colored basalt, stayed below the surface.

A Few Words About Sample 61016...

61016, at 11.7 kg, was the largest rock collected during the Apollo missions. It was nick-named "Big Muley" after one member of the geology support team.

Apollo 16 landed in the light-colored highlands of the Moon. These highlands regions are generally higher in elevation and composed of older rocks relative to the volcanic plains.

These rocks are rich in aluminum and calcium, two of the elements found in the plagioclase mineral anorthite.

This specimen is comprised of four different rock types:

  1. material of basaltic composition melted during an impact;
  2. an impact-shocked anorthosite, thought to be from ancient lunar crust;
  3. an impact shock-melted glass rich in aluminum and calcium; and
  4. a darker glass coating.

Some components in this rock may be as old as 4.5 billion years. Zap pits, or tiny craters created by micrometeorites striking the lunar surface at very high speeds, are prominent on one side of this rock, but absent on the other.

Since the pitless side was facing up when the astronauts found the rock, it must have only recently been turned over by natural processes.

Did We Go to the Moon Just to Get the Moon Rocks?
Even though the moon rocks have taught us and are continuing to teach us so much about the moon and the earth, the Apollo missions weren't originally planned as scientific studies.

After the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, the US launched the space program. It was a time of international rivalry between the USSR and the US, and once we started sending men into space, America was determined to put a man on the moon before the USSR and before the 60s ended.

As the race to the moon wore on, scientists pushed to add a scientific mission to the Apollo program. The astronauts didn't know much about geology, so they had training in New Mexico, Hawaii, and California, places geologists thought would be most like the moon. Out of 12 people to walk on the surface of the moon, the only actual geologist to go was Harrison "Jack" Schmidt, who was on the very last Apollo mission.

Did the Rocks Come from Different Parts of the Moon?
Yes. Each mission built on what was learned in the flights before it. When Apollo 11 landed in the Sea of Tranquility there were still a lot of unknowns about the surface of the moon.

That area was chosen because it appeared to be a safe, flat place to land, but at the time no one had any idea how deep the dust would be on the moon or whether the module would sink when it landed. For Apollo 12, scientists studied photos and telescope images to find a site that appeared safe, but was more geologically complex.

What Did the Moon Rocks Tell us about the Man in the Moon?
What we call the Man in the Moon is actually a pattern of basalt that fills up the large craters, or impact basins, that were formed when meteors hit the moon.

This "filling" process is interesting: When a meteor hits the moon, solid rock below the surface of the basin melts and the dark rock seeps up to the surface, like in a volcano. These basins are called seas (Mares, in Latin). When man first began wondering about the moon, he thought those large areas were filled with water.

Everyone wanted to know whether there really was water on the moon, but the moon rocks showed us that not only is there no water on the moon now, but there never was a single drop!

Were People Afraid of the Moon Rocks at First?
Yes. People were worried the rocks might contain microbes and germs that could contaminate the earth, and so, after the first Apollo mission (11), the crew had to spend 21 days in quarantine.

In fact, when the astronauts, after splash down, entered the rubber boat, they were scrubbed down with an iodine solution by the recovery swimmers; the astronauts, in turn, did the same for the frogmen. While a helicopter lifted the crew to the U.S.S. Hornet, the spacecraft got its scrub down before it, too, was lifted to the ship.

The astronauts stepped from the aircraft onto the carrier deck and straight into the mobile isolation unit.

Text Box:  After removing the isolation garments and freshening up, the three (Armstrong, Collins, and Aldrin, left to right) are greeted by President Nixon.

When no life whatsoever was found in the rocks, the concern switched to keeping the rocks from being contaminated by us.

Text Box:  Scientists in the Lunar Receiving Laboratory, working through glove ports, examine a moon rock.
Scientists in the Lunar Receiving Laboratory, working through glove ports, examine a
moon rock.

How Did the Moon Rocks Teach us about the Earth?
Before the Apollo missions to the moon, there were quite a few theories about how the moon formed. After studying the moon rocks and finding what ways they are similar to and what ways they are different from earth's rocks, a new theory stands out.

This theory says that since the moon and the earth are very closely related, the moon must in some way have formed from the earth.

Around four and a half billion years ago when the earth was forming, a huge planetary chunk of material about the size of Mars hit the earth.

Text Box:  Copyright 2008 by Don Dixon / cosmographica.com
Copyright 2008 by Don Dixon / cosmographica.com

This caused an enormous explosion, and part of the material which blew off formed the moon.

Here's the Process

A Mars-sized planet collided with the early Earth as it was forming:

  • The iron cores of the two planets merged.
  • Less dense material was ejected by the collision.
  • The less dense material merged to form the Moon.

Evidence for the collision

Here is some evidence for the collision theory:

  • The Earth has an iron core but the Moon does not.
  • Moon rocks are similar in composition to rocks found on Earth.

Why Did We Stop Exploring The Moon?

According to Carolyn Porco, of the New York Times, there is an opinion widely held within the space-exploration community that the Nixon administration's termination of the program that built the Saturn V Moon rocket was a gargantuan mistake.

She explains, "One of the biggest challenges in exploring space is propulsion -- that is, getting from point A to B efficiently, safely and quickly. And when the cargo is human, the challenges are even greater. One of our crowning technological achievements during the 1960s was the Apollo program and, in particular, the development of the Saturn V rocket.

The Saturn V was the largest, most powerful vehicle the United States had ever built.

Launch of Apollo 11 On July 16, 1969, Neil Armstrong,
Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins blasted off for the moon.
The Saturn V rocket and Spacecraft section in the picture
above was 363 feet high. NASA Photo-KSC-69PC-442,
labeling, G. A. Becker...

It had a launching capacity more than five times greater, a developmental cost 25 percent lower and a build-and-operate cost less than half of that of today's space shuttle.

But unfortunately, after the Apollo program was terminated, we went nowhere, and largely for political reasons.

To read about the enormous cost to the nation because of this misstep, click here.

When Are we Going Back to the Moon?
In January of 2004, President Bush called on NASA to "gain a new foothold on the moon and to prepare for new journeys to the worlds beyond our own."

This would be based on a series of goals.

  • First, complete the International Space Station by 2010.
  • Second, develop a new manned exploration vehicle, called the Crew Exploration Vechicle (CEV), and conduct its first manned mission no later than 2014.
  • Third, return to the moon by 2020, for use as the launching point for missions beyond.

Text Box:  "We do not know where this journey will end, yet we know this: Human beings are headed into the cosmos."--President George W. Bush




"We do not know where this
journey will end, yet we know
this: Human beings are headed
into the cosmos."--President
George W. Bush


Paleo Fun


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Moon Rocks FAQs


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Understanding: Prehistoric Meteor Hit the Caribbean Sea