For several years I used to carry a tiny bit of lunar soil around in my wallet, and every now and again I remember that’s actually fully remarkable and mad.
Of course, I didn’t actually go to the moon and collect it myself. We didn’t have the budget for that. Instead, my friend and colleague Andy Morse got it from the safe in the clean room in the next lab.
Together we spent 20 hours or so cooking it up, indirectly analysing the deuterium to hydrogen ratio of the trapped solar wind we were now driving off. The D/H ratio of solar wind tells you something about the formation of and processes within the Sun, and I don’t believe anyone had made that measurement in this particular way before.
As I remember, sometime around 4am Andy phoned our results through to our boss, Colin Pillinger, who was over at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston.
Later that morning as we tidied up, Andy handed me the little sample, now metamorphised from the heat, wrapped in a bit of foil and sealed in a glass envelope, these few milligrams of the lunar regolith, that had been brought back from another world by human beings who had risked their lives to travel through the vacuum of space by being strapped to a hundred metre tall tank full of explosives, and I stuck it my wallet because this thing was a remarkable treasure.
The rather mundane end of this little anecdote is that I had to give it back a few years later because NASA were doing a stock take.
By virtue of turning 50 this year, I am reminded it is 50 years since the Apollo 11 mission, the first crewed moon landing.
The BBC World Service’s 13 Minutes To The Moon is a terrific radio series (or podcasts as we call them in this modern age) about just what an astonishing achievement that was.
The last Apollo mission, Apollo 17, went to the moon in December 1972. NASA is again moving towards new crewed missions to the Moon (keep 2024 free space fans!) and NASA’s Chief Scientist, the wonderfully ebullient Jim Green, is doing a top job covering the latest lunar science in the current series of the Gravity Assist Podcast.
To close out, Kennedy’s 1962 speech announcing the ambition to send people to the moon before the decade’s end is really a hell of a thing.