Inside Earth’s largest collection of moon rocks

"The moon rocks taught us about the entire solar system"

Fifty years ago, Apollo 11 blasted off for the moon. Over the course of the Apollo program, a dozen astronauts made the 240,000-mile journey to the moon’s surface, scooping up hundreds of pounds of rocks and soil.

“CBS This Morning” got a rare glimpse inside the Lunar Sample Laboratory: the secure, windowless facility at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston that houses 80% of the lunar samples brought back. Inside the laboratory, white anti-contamination jumpsuits are a must.

“This is by far the largest collection anywhere in the world,” said Ryan Ziegler, NASA’s Apollo sample curator.

During the six Apollo missions that landed men on the moon, astronauts collected 842 pounds of lunar rock and soil. NASA’s collection includes what may be the oldest rock from the moon — the rock is 4.4 billion years old, and the moon might only be 4.4 billion years old.

It also features the last sample collected on the Apollo 11 mission. “Neil Armstrong decided that the rock box with the samples looked empty,” Ziegler said, “so he shoveled four or five shovelfuls of dirt into the rock box.”

Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong works at the Lunar Module

Ziegler said that the soil is “probably the most valuable sample” that Apollo 11 brought back. “If I could pick one sample from Apollo 11, this is it,” he said.

Nitrogen pumped into stainless steel cabinets preserves the rocks inside, and for someone with training and three sets of gloves, it’s a hands-on collection.   “It never stops being fun — it’s amazing,” Ziegler said. “Every day I come into the lab is just like the first day.”

Many of the rocks have stories — like the largest rock collected during the Apollo missions, which Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke had to roll up the side of his spacesuit because it was so heavy.

Astronaut Charles M. Duke Jr., Apollo 16 Lunar Module pilot, is photographed collecting lunar samples – NASA

“Working against that suit was demanding,” said Duke, now 83. “So after eight hours in that suit you were really tired. You squeeze in the gloves and… in and out of the car trying to bend over. And so it was exhausting.” Ziegler said it was worth the effort. “It turned out to be a really important sample,” he said. The samples revealed secrets, leading scientists to believe that a Mars-sized planet collided with Earth and exploded a ring of debris that formed the moon about 4.5 billion years ago. And in one cabinet, there are the final six pristine moon samples, still unsealed and unstudied. NASA will soon open three of them, saving the rest for the next generation of researchers.

“The moon rocks taught us about the entire solar system,” Ziegler said.

“Arguably the most important geological find ever?” asked CBS News correspondent Mark Strassmann.

“I’m sure there are people would argue with that,” Ziegler said. “But I think they would lose.”

banner image – Apollo 12 moon rock – NASA