Published: December 1969
What the Moon Rocks Tell Us
By Kenneth F. Weaver

This article was originally published in the December 1969 issue of the magazine.

“When we opened that first box of moon rocks, the hushed, expectant atmosphere in the Lunar Receiving Laboratory was, I imagine, like that in a medieval monastery as the monks awaited the arrival of a fragment of the True Cross.”

Such keen anticipation, as described by Dr. Robin Brett, a NASA geologist on the team that first examined the lunar samples, is understandable. These were the most sought after, the most eagerly awaited, of all specimens in the history of science. Moreover, as some 500 scientists have labored in recent months to make every conceivable kind of test on them, the moon rocks and soil have become the most intensely studied of all scientific specimens.

At first glance, when the box was opened, the excitement hardly seemed warranted. On that historic moment on July 26, scientists clad in surgeons’ gowns and caps, and carrying gas masks for use in case they should be exposed to any moon dust, crowded together to peer intently through a glass port in the lab’s high-vacuum chamber. From the opposite side of the stainless-steel chamber, a technician working through stiff gloves raised the lid of the sample box and laid back the Teflon bag inside.

“What we saw,” wryly recalls one observer, “was not much different from a bag of charcoal. The rocks were so covered with dark-gray dust that no one could tell a thing about them.”

But later, when the dust was cleaned off and the minerals could be clearly seen, the rocks began to tell their story. It was a story full of surprises. It revealed that no one had been totally right in his ideas of the moon, and it raised more questions than it answered.

Sometime in January, the lunar scientists will gather to report the story of the first moon samples in formal detail. Meanwhile, here are the preliminary highlights, based on interviews with a number of scientists:

As new samples come back from succeeding Apollo flights—eight more are scheduled after Apollo 12—scientists will have their hands full comparing the maria with one another, and the maria materials with those from the highlands.

Even the historic Apollo 11 samples will probably not all go on museum shelves for a long time. As Dr. Taylor says, “The moon rocks are different enough from earth rocks to keep us busy for years.”

Kenneth F. Weaver was Assistant Editor of the magazine at the time when this article was published.