Oops! This Lab Neglected to Return the Samples of Moondust NASA Loaned It

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One of the 20 vials of moondust found in Berkeley storage (Marilee Bailey via Berkeley Lab)

In 1969, after the Apollo 11 crew returned from their historic mission to the moon, the rocks and soil samples they collected were put to use in scientific research. NASA divided the lunar spoils Armstrong and Aldrin had gathered so painstakingly into small vials, sending the samples out to more than 150 laboratories around the world. The samples -- the single souvenir of more than 800,000 miles of travel -- were loaners rather than donations: after the labs conducted their experiments, they were meant to return the moondust to NASA.

One lab, however, neglected to make that return. And -- in a twist that says as much about government bureaucracy as it does about scientific -- we're just now realizing the oversight. And only because of an accident. Last month, Karen Nelson, an archivist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, was reviewing and clearing out some of the items stored in the lab's large warehouse. Nelson came across a set of 20 vials, vacuum-sealed in a glass jar. Each contained a small amount of gray dust, and each had a handwritten label: "Apollo, 11" and "24 July 1970."

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Yes. For nearly 43 years, Nelson realized, small samples of the moon had been sitting in storage in Berkeley. The moon dust, on Earth, had been ... gathering dust.

So what led to that happening? How did the samples fail to make their way back to NASA? While "we don't know how or when they ended up in storage," Nelson says, it's likely that the samples were used in research that led to the publication of a paper she found included with the stash: "Study of carbon compounds in Apollo 11 and Apollo 12 returned lunar samples" [pdf], published in the Proceedings of the Second Lunar Science Conference in 1971. The paper analyzed the physical characteristics of the carbon in the lunar samples. Each of the paper's five co-authors came from Berkeley's Space Sciences Laboratory -- and one of them was Melvin Calvin, the 1961 winner of the Nobel Prize in chemistry, and a researcher who would go on to help shape NASA's efforts in the search for extraterrestrial life.

So Nelson, figuring out what she had, almost literally, on her hands, did what any self-respecting archivist would do: she tried to track down the source of her find. But people at the Space Sciences Laboratory "were surprised we had the samples," she said. So Nelson finally contacted the primary source of the moonrocks: NASA. And the agency allowed her to remove the vials from their vacuum-sealed jar, letting the lucky archivist look more closely at the fine, gray powder that had been gathered by a pair of adventurous humans four eventful decades ago. 

And then it asked her to send the samples back.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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