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NASA Worries Its Moon Rocks Will Moonwalk Away



Darby Dyar, a professor at Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts, works in a high-security environment.

"I will not tell you where the safe is," said Dyar.

Inside are moon rocks-samples of lunar rock and soil collected by astronauts as part of the Apollo program in the 1960s and 1970s.

The lunar samples she and other researchers study are the property of the US government.

To protect them, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has strict security protocols to handle a heist film. It is not just paranoia. Over the years, NASA's gravitational pull has escaped. One night in 2002, three interns absconded with a 600-pound safe full of moon rocks from Apollo missions. The rocks were retrieved, but could not be used for scientific research. The interns pleaded guilty and the ringleader was sentenced to more than eight years in prison.

President Richard Nixon gifted some lunar rocks to foreign luminaries. Typically, they were embedded in a plaque-some of which have their way into the marketplace.

The vault inside the Lunar Sample Laboratory Facility at the Johnson Space Center.


Photo:
            

        James Blair / NASA
          

In a 2003 court case titled "United States of America v. One Lucite Ball Containing Lunar Material (One Moon Rock) and One Ten Inch by Fourteen Inch Wooden Plaque, "The Justice Department went on an item bought by an American businessman from a retired Honduran colonel for $ 15,000 plus a refrigerated truck. OUT. District Judge ruled the U.S. The plaque was returned to Honduras.

NASA itself is not blameless. Apollo 11 lunar collection bag that contained lunar dust particles, "according to a 2018 Office of Inspector General audit of NASA's historic property.

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The Agency says it is vigilant.

Should NASA stop being so protective of its moon rocks and just sell them off to the national debt? 19659004] "We do not go into any of our security countermeasures, but they are significant," said Ryan Zeigler, NASA's Apollo sample curator.

NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston houses the country's collection of lunar samples in a facility built to last with hurricanes and backups to maintain the special storage protocols going on in a power outage. Zeigler. Houston, a museum nearby.

"We drive over with a security escort by a secret way." Zeigler said.

A moon rock sample at the Johnson Space Center.


Photo:
            

        BILL STAFFORD / NASA
          

Within its cosmic coffers, the agency has approximately 110,000 lunar specimens from the Apollo program. Astronauts brought back 2,200, which have been divorced into sub-samples for research. When they return, they go into the return vault. Never-before-studied specimen, approximately 70% of the collection, are stored in the so-called pristine lunar vault to avoid contamination, according to Dr. med. Zeigler. One, known as Sample 73001, is attached to a 809-gram slab of moon rock in a vacuum-sealed tube inside a second vacuum-sealed container. The contraption is covered in hardy teflon bags.

Now, the agency is making it, along with some frozen rocks and others stored in helium-filled containers, available for the first time to nine research groups across the country , among them Dr. Dyar's. It is also fitting to release them now. It is also fitting to release them now

Cracking 73001's sheath open wants to require extreme precautions, as the gases trapped inside it could be a valuable scientific resource, according to researchers familiar with the lunar matt. In June, scientists from the nine groups discuss how best to unseal the sample, known as a core.

"We're doing this very, very systematically," University of New Mexico lunar scientist Charles Shearer, one of the scientists leading the mission to study the new samples. The last lunar core was found.

"Compared to the Apollo days, we have very sophisticated methods for detecting ultralow concentrations of organics, "he said.

A researcher handles lunar samples from the Apollo 14 mission.


Photo:
            

        NASA
          

The research groups that have access to 73001 and other specimens had to submit proposals to NASA.

The list is pretty strict, according to papers reviewed by The Wall Street Journal: Do not Store Samples with something that might be "high-theft value," like precious stones or classified material. Keep samples in restricted access areas, often behind several locked doors. The location and combinations of the safes where the samples are stored are on a "need to know" basis. Safes must be bolted down.

The government also has the right to inspect a researcher's storage space. While dr. Dyar was working on her doctorate in the 1980s, she recalls. The Lunar Sample Laboratory Facility is preparing for a big release.


Photo:
            

        James Blair / NASA
          

Transporting the samples from Johnson Space Center to laboratories around the world must happen via registered mail or a JSC-approved shipping service, according to scientists and documents. Scientists can also hand-carry them, but that sparks its own issues.

Zeigler flies with moon rocks, he'll rarely get through security without [the agent] saying 'What's this?' "He says. Often agents wants to shuffle over to take a look. "I think it breaks up the monotony. It's not another tube of toothpaste. "

At the Houston airport, agents are less moonstruck. There, they often respond with "Oh, it's just another moon rock. Fine carry it on, "Dr. Zeigler says.

Write to Daniela Hernandez at daniela.hernandez@wsj.com


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