Apollo 11 samples: priceless souvenirs

The first lunar and some surprises

First look at real moon rock: samples of the Apollo 11 mission right after landing. © NASA
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From the Moon to Mainz: 50 years ago, Apollo 11 was the first astronaut to land on the moon. On their return, they brought priceless souvenirs - 21 kilograms of moon rock. One of the first to examine these Apollo samples was a German researcher. He ended up in quarantine due to a mishap even with the Apollo astronauts. A little later, precious samples of this moonstone also reached Germany.

When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, this was not just a "big jump for humanity." The Apollo program also opened a whole new era for science. For the first time researchers were now able to examine rock samples from another celestial body - and thus valuable contemporary witnesses from the early days of the solar system.

"Give me a piece of the moon and I'll tell you how our solar system came about, " said US chemist Harold Urey. He is best known for his involvement in the famous Ursuppen Experiment. Countless scientists around the world wanted to get some of the coveted moon samples and analyze them. At the time, NASA selected the researchers who were the first to get this opportunity.

Heavily Guarded: Arrival of the First Sealed Moon Samples Containers of the Apollo 11 Mission in Houston. © NASA

"Like a bunch of coke"

Among the scientists who were the first to take a look at the lunar rock was Josef Z hringer from the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg. He was in Houston in July 1969, when the samples of Apollo 11 were examined for the first time immediately after landing. Previously, however, the sealed containers were irradiated with UV light against possible "moon germs" and disinfected with peracetate.

Then finally it was time: "When the sample container was finally opened and the stones came to light, however, you only saw disappointed faces, " says Z hringer. "The stones looked like a bunch of coke. They were covered with a layer of very fine dust and showed no mineralogical details. "Initial analysis also showed that the lunar rock was far less original than hoped. display

In Quarant ne with Armstrong and Co

The first investigations of the Apollo specimens took place under strict safety measures: For fear of deadly moon bacteria or poisonous dust, the researchers had to work in hermetically sealed glove boxes. However, it also came to mishaps example, because a glove ripped. Such a mishap also broke Z hringer and he was promptly sent to the quarantine station with Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin.

This was a unique opportunity for the researcher: "Direct contact with the astronauts was very beneficial in identifying the rock samples, as they could still answer many questions fresh from memory, " he writes. Z hringer experienced his quarantine comrades as "normal, very nice and extremely humorous people." Despite the three-week isolation, the team had their fun and spent time playing poker.

From Houston to Mainz

But research groups in Germany soon got their share of the Apollo samples: On September 18, 1969, the chemist Hans Voshage brought the first 105 grams of lunar rock by air from Houston to the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz. Now it is said: "The unstable radioisotopes decayed with each passing day and thus became more difficult to measure, " explains the then director Heinrich W nke.

Just a few minutes after the arrival of the lunar samples, the scientists began their measurements. Above all they wanted to answer questions about the birth of the moon, its age and the influence of the solar wind and received some surprising answers. Because dating revealed that the moon had to be almost as old as Earth and geologically unexpectedly earth-like. In the meantime, it is clear that the moon actually arose from the wreckage of a huge collision of the earth with a protoplanete.

Conspiracy theories disproved

And yet the analysis of the Mainz researchers revealed that the Americans were really on the moon. The documented comparison of the Apollo samples with lunar material, which unmanned Soviet probes returned to Earth: "The samples of both missions agreed so well that this was the theory that Americans would have landed in Hollywood." Studios staged, the death sentence staggered unless the Russians would have played along, "says Friedrich Begemann MPI in Mainz.

Cleanroom with glove boxes at the Lunar Sample Facility in Houston. © Lar / CC-by-sa 4.0

80 percent of the samples are still untouched

The moon rock of the Apollo missions is still treasured by NASA today. Apart from individual chunks exhibited in museums, most of the Apollo souvenirs are in a special facility in Houston, the Lunar Sample Building. There the lunar rock is kept in pure nitrogen and completely isolated from the outside world. A smaller percentage of the Apollo samples are also housed in a bunker in New Mexico for safety reasons - as a reserve if the Houston plant is damaged or destroyed.

Although more than 5, 000 research laboratories around the world have received minute samples of lunar rocks, around 80 percent of Apollo samples are still untouched. Only this isolated storage makes it possible for researchers to gain ever new surprising findings about the Earth's moon. Only a few years ago, analyzes of inclusions in the lunar rock revealed that there is water in the interior of the moon.

Source: NASA, Max Planck Society

- Nadja Podbregar