Written by Kyle Mitan, University of Communications
It took six days in space—and more than 18 hours of lunar exploration—for NASA astronauts David Scott and James Irwin to collect 170 pounds of lunar rock that they brought back to Earth as part of NASA’s Apollo 15 mission in 1971.
Anyone in the Tucson area this summer will probably take no more than a half hour’s drive from a quarter pound of that distance.
Moon rock is on display through mid-August at the University of Arizona’s Alfie Norville Museum of Gems and Minerals, thanks to a six-month loan from NASA. I arrived at the museum in early February, as the museum was preparing for a grand opening in its new space at the Pima County Historic Courthouse during the annual Tucson Gem, Mineral, and Fossil Exposition.
Weighing 4 ounces and about 3 inches long, the rock is the largest specimen that NASA has loaned to museums from its collection at Johnson Space Center in Houston. Elizabeth Gasspecializes in exhibitions at the Alfie Norville Museum of Gems and Minerals.
The rock can be found in the Museum’s Mineral Evolution exhibit, the first exhibit guests enter as they leave the lobby.
“It’s a great honor to have this rock here,” said Gus. “Not every museum qualifies to own one due to the strict security protocols needed to keep the rock safe.”
Gass said Mark Kelly, a US senator from Arizona and retired astronaut, was instrumental in helping the museum obtain the rock. During a visit to the museum before the grand opening, Kelly noticed that the museum did not contain a moon rock and mentioned it to museum staff.
Later, before the museum could apply for a lunar rock loan, a NASA official called to ask if the museum was interested.
Gus said with a chuckle, apparently, that Kelly reached out to his NASA colleagues and “made a good enough case that they called us.” It also helped speed up the application process, she added.
During a visit to the University of Arizona campus earlier this month, NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Milroy expressed his gratitude to Kelly for helping him move the rock to the museum.
Referring to the upcoming Artemis missions, Milroy said, aiming to land the first woman and first color person on a moon.
Apollo 15 was the first of NASA’s Apollo “J” missions, which gave astronauts more time to explore the lunar surface than previous Apollo flights. Scott, the mission commander, and Erwin, the lunar module commander, made the trip to the lunar surface; Alfred Worden, the mission’s third astronaut, commanded the command module and remained inside the module as it orbited the moon.
The lunar module landed in the plains near Hadley Riley, a valley on the moon’s surface. Gass said the area looks like the hills at the base of the many mountain ranges on Earth.
Scott and Irwin spent nearly three days exploring the area. The mission marked the first time humans had driven a car on the Moon, with the pair traveling 17.5 miles in the rover.
The rock now in the museum was collected at Station 8, a site about 410 feet from where the lunar module landed. Station 8 is also where astronauts created the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package, or ALSEP, which NASA used until 1977 to collect data on the lunar surface.
Gass, a geologist, said the rock is a chunk of Persian basalt, a volcanic mineral found in the moon’s flat lowlands. She added that these lowlands can be seen in the images of the moon taken from Earth. They appear as darker shaded areas, contrasting with the brighter areas, which are the mountains. According to NASA, lunar basalt can be up to 3.3 billion years old – older than 98% of the minerals found on Earth.
The rock is at least the second moonstone to be found in Tucson. The Pima Air and Space Museum also has a rock on permanent loan from NASA.
The Alfie Norville Gem & Mineral Museum stands out from other mineral museums as a destination to see both gems and minerals; Minerals are inorganic solids found naturally in the earth’s crust, while gemstones are minerals that have been combined with something else for the sake of aesthetics.
Although moon rock is anchored by scientific discoveries, there is plenty to like about it for those who just want to look at something pretty, Gass said.
“Seeing an unaltered, untamed moon rock is really special,” Gass said.
The Alfie Norville Gem & Mineral Museum is located at Pima County Historic Courthouse, 115 N. Church Ave. The museum is open Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with the last tickets on sale at 3 p.m. Museum location.