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."
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.