There are a few rules for handling pieces of the moon collected by Apollo astronauts. Keep the samples locked in a safe. Don’t blab to everyone that you have some. Don’t destroy them, unless you’ve been given permission; sometimes, in the name of science, the samples must be dissolved in acid. And, most important, don’t sneeze.
“If you sneeze,” says Alex Sehlke, a geologist at NASA, “it’s gone.”
When most scientists today study lunar samples from the Apollo era, they aren’t working with hefty boulders or even rocks. Their samples come in small vials, in the form of dust, with particles about the size of grains of sand. One wrong move, and the powdery specimen might end up scattered across the laboratory floor.
Apollo astronauts brought home much more than that, of course. From 1969 to 1972, the short but productive years of several moon landings, astronauts delivered more than 800 pounds of lunar souvenirs, including chunks of rock and fine powder.
The samples from the first moon landing, collected by Neil Armstrong, completely transformed our understanding of the moon—and our place alongside it. Scientists discovered that the soil contained fragments of a rock called anorthosite, which tends to float to the top of magma. The moon today is undoubtedly barren—“magnificent desolation,” as Buzz Aldrin so wonderfully put it. But the presence of anorthosite, right there on the surface, suggest a choppy, molten past—and an event powerful enough to liquefy the landscape. The analysis of these samples produced what remains the leading theory for the formation of the moon: Billions of years ago, a Mars-size world slammed into the young Earth and produced a fountain of debris that coalesced and cooled into the moon.