Public Interest in Lunar Samples

While the laboratory teams worked two shifts a day to prepare the sample: for outside researchers, project managers were considering how to deal with a growing public curiosity about the first rocks returned from the moon. Even before Apollo 11 left the launch pad, requests for lunar specimens for display had begun to arrive at the Manned Spacecraft Center. When MSC scientists expressed concern at what these requests might lead to, Apollo project manager George Low asked Headquarters for help in developing a policy to deal with them. Low's principal concern was that NASA "would arouse the animosity of the scientists in this program by wholesale or capricious distribution of valuable lunar material for nonscientific purposes." Low considered it appropriate to prepare a few lunar specimens for touring exhibits at major museums in the United States and abroad, provided they were eventually returned to the lunar receiving laboratory for scientific use. He also expected to be asked for samples to be presented to various VIPs; this MSC was willing to do, provided the number and size of such samples could be kept quite small. MSC scientists were alarmed, however, by a White House proposal to present lunar samples to the heads of state of 120 countries.67

Apollo program director Sam Phillips replied that his office was accountable for the spacecraft and all hardware items that had gone to the moon; presumably that responsibility extended to the lunar samples as well (although it appears that this point had not been explicitly settled), and Phillips asked Houston for suggestions as to procedures. Concerning the lending of samples to museums and presentation of souvenirs to VIPs, however, he noted that "The Administrator will make the final determination of the overall allocation of lunar material for scientific and other purposes."68 A mid-August general management review at Headquarters reaffirmed this position, stating that the Public Affairs Office had primary responsibility for arranging exhibition, presentation, or other uses of the samples, and it was directed to develop plans for presentation, "if possible, of small amounts of lunar material to Chiefs of State as desired by the President." The Offices of Manned Space Flight and Space Science and Applications were asked to indicate how much material, if any, and what kind (i.e., rocks or dust) could be made available for such purposes.69

When Headquarters called for that information, MSC's response reflected the view of lunar scientists. They were not inclined to be liberal in giving away lunar rocks, which they rightly regarded as a priceless scientific resource. Director Robert R. Gilruth replied that he could make available 150 to 200 presentation samples, each consisting of 100 milligrams (less than the volume of an aspirin tablet) of fines from the bulk or contingency samples. Concerning VIP souvenirs, Gilruth said that "we could make available if required about 10 samples of 1 gm each... to be given away if needed [emphasis in the original]," but the Center would prefer not to part with samples that big. For museums, ten 50-gram (1.75-ounce) rock specimens might be made available on loan, provided they could be recalled on one month's notice by Houston's curator of lunar samples.70

Not surprisingly, public interest in the lunar samples was tremendous, and in September the first of several displays of moon rocks was opened in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Thousands queued up to get a glimpse of a moon rock; many found it disappointingly ordinary.71 Presentation samples - tiny portions of lunar dust, packaged in plastic vials and attractively mounted in plaques - were prepared for the world's heads of state and presented by astronauts or government officials on world tours. So far as can be determined, no lunar rocks were cut and polished as paperweights for the desks of VIPs.

67. George M. Low to NASA Hqs., attn.: Lt. Gen. S. C. Phillips, "Special Lunar Samples for Museum Display or Presentation to VIPs," July 7, 1969.

68. Phillips to Low, "Lunar Sample Accounting," Aug. 5, 1969.

69. Willis H. Shapley to multiple addressees, "Lunar Sample Material," Aug. 19, 1969. It was reported that Nixon offered the President of Indonesia and other chiefs of state "a piece of the moon as a souvenir"; New York Times, July 28, 1969, cited in Astronautics and Aeronautics, 1969: Chronology on Science, Technology, and Policy, NASA SP-4014 (Washington, 1970), p. 249.

70. Phillips, TWX to Low, Aug. 15, 1969; Robert R. Gilruth to Rocco A. Petrone, "Non-Scientific Use of Lunar Samples," Sept. 5, 1969.

Forwarding the latter memo to George Low, Wilmot Hess (whose deputy, Anthony Calio, had drafted it for Gilruth's signature) stressed his own distaste for the plan to present large samples to VIPs - a distaste that was shared by the lunar scientists. Elbert King, who had been appointed first curator of lunar samples, did everything he could to prevent distribution of any lunar samples as souvenirs. When he first heard of the plan to present souvenirs to VIPs, his impression was that "they were talking about big polished pieces of rock for paperweights. . . . Here was priceless scientific material that was going to be cut up as political trophies." The White House proposal was even more offensive to King, and when a Washington paper called him to ask for his reaction, he commented that it would be unthinkable - a reaction which, he recalled later, "caused much unhappiness within the center, because here was someone [at MSC] disagreeing with the President, and that's very poor form." Elbert A. King, Jr., interview with L. S. Swenson, Jr., May 27, 1971, tape in JSC History Office files; Marti Mueller, "Trouble at NASA: Space Scientists Resign," Science 165 (1969): 776-79.

Nixon had already drawn considerable adverse criticism from some newspapers, which accused him of trying to turn Apollo to his own political advantage in spite of his negligible record of supporting the space program. His telephone call to the astronauts on the moon, the addition of his signature to those of the astronauts on the commemorative plaque on the lunar module Eagle, and his visit to the Hornet (on his way to a tour of Asia), were all cited as attempts to get unmerited credit for the Apollo accomplishment. See the editorial in the Washington Post, "Our Mark on the Moon," July 3, 1969; Herblock's cartoon "Lunar Hitchhiker," Washington Post, July 6, 1969; "Plaque Pique," Washington Evening Star, July 9, 1969; Marianne Means, "President Nixon and the Astronauts," Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, July 13, 1969; "Hate the President," Richmond (Va.) News Leader, July 15, 1969; William Hines, "Nixon Skims Off the Cream," Washington Sunday Star, July 27, 1969.

71. "8,200 View Moon Rock," Washington Evening Star, Sept. 18, 1969, "'It looks like any rock,'" Washington Daily News, Sept. 18, 1969.

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