Moon dust gathered by Neil Armstrong discovered in warehouse after 40 years

While tidying up a storage space at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, an archivist makes a cosmic discovery.

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Edward Moyer is a senior editor at CNET and a many-year veteran of the writing and editing world. He enjoys taking sentences apart and putting them back together. He also likes making them from scratch. ¶ For nearly a quarter of a century, he's edited and written stories about various aspects of the technology world, from the US National Security Agency's controversial spying techniques to historic NASA space missions to 3D-printed works of fine art. Before that, he wrote about movies, musicians, artists and subcultures.
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Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory/Marilee Bailey

Several miscellaneous bits and pieces of the first moon mission have orbited back into view lately.

In March, it was pieces of the rocket that propelled Apollo 11 spaceward, kindly dragged from their watery grave by Amazon CEO and space enthusiast Jeff Bezos.

And more recently, the auction block played host to Buzz Aldrin's space jammies, as well as Neil Armstrong's jumpin' heartbeat as he first set foot on the lunar surface.

Now, thanks to Karen Nelson, a tidy archivist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, about 20 forgotten vials of moon dust collected by Armstrong and Aldrin have been rescued from a grave of their own: a warehouse at the Berkeley lab, where they'd sat quietly gathering, um, Earth dust for the last 40 years or so.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory/Roy Kaltschmidt

As Julie Chao explained in an item on the Lab's Web site earlier this month:

When Apollo 11 returned from its historic flight in 1969, the moon rocks and lunar soil collected by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin eventually found their way to some 150 laboratories worldwide. One of those was the Space Sciences Laboratory in Latimer Hall on the U.C. Berkeley campus. After experiments were conducted and papers published, those samples should have been sent back to NASA. Instead they wound up in storage....

And apparently were promptly forgotten -- till archivist Nelson got busy organizing things several decades later and discovered the buried treasure.


Archivist Karen Nelson happily displays the goods.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory/Roy Kaltschmidt

The vials "were vacuum sealed in a glass jar," the 17-year vet of the archives told Chao. "We don't know how or when they ended up in storage."

The vials were kept company all those years by a copy of the paper "Study of carbon compounds in Apollo 11 and Apollo 12 returned lunar samples," which was published in the Proceedings of the Second Lunar Science Conference in 1971 (and which you -- space geek that you are -- can read in its fascinating PDF entirety here).

Perhaps the folks at Berkeley just lost interest in the dust once it became apparent there were no signs of past carbon-based moon life in it.

Then again, you never know: Maybe they should analyze the stuff a second time. Wouldn't that be a hoot: "Proof of extraterrestrial life sat in a warehouse for nearly half a century." (Ah! Put on your tinfoil hats, conspiracy buffs: Maybe that's why these things "went missing" in the first place...)

Nelson says she's let NASA know about the dust and that the space agency has politely asked that it be returned. In the meantime, the NASA folks said she could go ahead and open the sealed jar to get a closer look at the vials.

Here's to Karen Nelson and all the other dedicated, archive-organizing archivists out there. You never know what they'll find.

Maybe they'll even come across some of the numerous moon rocks that have wandered off over the years.


Who knows what curiosities sit forgotten in the world's vast warehouses?

Still from Raiders of the Lost Ark/Paramount Pictures

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