Searching for Moon Rocks in Iowa

In 1964, midwestern farmers and school kids got a jump on the Apollo astronauts.

(David Clark)
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Before the crew of Apollo 11 brought back the first moon rocks, many thought such artifacts might first be found by a 12-year-old from Iowa. Amazingly, there was a time when people were betting on who—astronauts or schoolkids—would be the first lunar rock hound.

NASA had undertaken a quixotic effort to get moon rocks without actually going to the moon. Under 1964’s Project Moon Harvest, farmers and schoolchildren in six counties across western Iowa were encouraged to dig up their neighborhoods in search of possible lunar meteorites.

The project was based on the then-popular belief that tektites (a form of natural glass) and other Earth stones might actually be moon rocks, blasted into space by meteor strikes and sent plunging to Earth. “Presumably, [Earth] is strewn with billions of lunar fragments,” wrote the New York Times. If true, travel between Earth and the moon had already been accomplished, at least by rocks, and a great deal could be learned about the moon’s geology before landing humans there.

Yet none had been identified, possibly because they were thought to bear a close resemblance to typical terrestrial rocks. But there was still some hope for western Iowa, which remained “remarkably free of native stones,” according to the New York Times. There, the deep soil had been deposited by wind during the last Ice Age, making the region ideal for both farming and uncovering ancient rocks.

A lunar rock find might have bridged an embarrassing information gap. Though the moon landings were already approved, NASA still knew far too little about the terrain its spacecraft might encounter. Hard (read “crash”) landings by NASA’s Ranger and the Soviet Union’s Luna probes returned just a few blurry, inconclusive photos. News stories raised the ominous prospect of a lander sinking into deep ash. NASA, facing the unknown, cut its load-bearing estimates for lunar soil; consequently the LEM required bigger feet, and folding legs so it could attach to the command module. Thinking some answers could be found without leaving Earth, NASA launched Project Moon Harvest in March 1964 to coincide with spring plowing. NASA educators visiting the target Midwest counties encouraged students, and press reports at the time promised: “You may be the first person to find a piece of the moon!”

Thus inspired, 4-H groups were soon cratering their neighborhoods and farmers tilling their fields in search of otherworldly harvest. The project surely marks the only official liaison between NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and Pottawattamie County, Iowa’s Agricultural Extension; the latter reported being “swamped with samples worthy of a geological museum.”

A mountain of would-be moon material was submitted for testing at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California. Promising specimens were crushed, examined by microscope and spectrograph, then probed for evidence of the superheating and cosmic-ray activity characteristic of exposure to space and atmospheric entry to Earth.

Yet the project’s final harvest, including smokestack clinkers (bits of residue blasted aloft during burning or smelting) and even fossils, produced nothing extraterrestrial. So the effort, after running just short of a year, ended in March 1965, with each sample returned to its sender, along with a letter of thanks.

Tektites, it turns out, are terrestrial rocks that were ejected through Earth’s atmosphere by meteor impacts or volcanic explosions and then fell back to the ground, so they indeed show evidence of atmospheric entry, but are hardly the natural moonshots that 1960s-era scientists had hoped for. But they did help scientists design heat shields, confirming the bluntly rounded shape still used on spacecraft today. Real lunar meteorites wouldn’t be recovered until scientists found some in 1979 in Antarctica.

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