The Story of the Moon Rock in Joe Biden's Oval Office

Jennifer Leman
·6 min read

From Popular Mechanics

  • At the request of President Joe Biden, a moon rock is now on display in the Oval Office.

  • Lunar sample 76015,143 is a remnant from a violent asteroid impact on the moon’s surface.

  • Astronauts collected the sample during Apollo 17, the final mission to the moon.

As President Joe Biden took the oath of office on the steps of the Capitol building on Wednesday, White House staffers busily prepared the Oval Office for his arrival. They added a bust of Caesar Chavez behind the resolute desk, swapped out one set of gold curtains for another, and replaced a portrait of Andrew Jackson with that of Benjamin Franklin, among other changes.

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The White House team also added an alien artifact to the shelves of the Oval: a Hacky Sack-sized chunk of the moon.

According to a Washington Post report, Biden selected the lunar sample in hopes that it might "remind Americans of the ambition and accomplishments of earlier generations." The sample is on loan from NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, the agency says.

“I’m so jazzed, as are a lot of my colleagues,” Noah Petro, a Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, tells Popular Mechanics. “The first thing everybody wanted to know was ‘Which sample is it?’”

The answer: Lunar Sample 76015,143.

Astronauts Harrison “Jack” Schmitt (the only geologist to ever visit the moon) and Eugene Cernan collected sample 76015,143 during Apollo 17, the final crewed mission to the moon. Notably, Apollo 17 took place in December 1972, the same month President Biden lost his first wife, Neilia, and daughter, Naomi, in a car accident.

Photo credit: NASA
Photo credit: NASA

Between 1969 and 1972, Apollo astronauts collected 842 pounds of lunar samples from the surface of the moon. “Every single piece of moon rock that was collected tells us something important about the history of the moon,” Petro says.

Schmitt chipped sample 76015,143 off of a boulder at Station 6, a field site at the base of the North Massif, a mountain on the northern side of the Taurus-Littrow Valley. You can actually watch Schmitt and Cernan traipse across the lunar surface and discuss the sample site on the website Apollo 17 in Real Time. The 3.9 billion-year-old sample, a type of rock called an impact melt breccia, tells the catastrophic tale of the last great asteroid impact on the near side of the moon.

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When a meteor or asteroid hits the surface of the moon, it transfers an enormous amount of energy to the lunar surface, which can fracture and melt rock in the moon's crust, Petro explains. "That rock, when it melts, forms in a geologic instant," he says.

According to NASA, sample 76015,143 can be traced to the impact that created the Imbrium Impact Basin, a crater that's 711.5 miles in diameter. (Petro, however, argues the origin of sample 76015 is still up for interpretation.)

In any regard, samples like 76015,143 act as an important time capsule. "Since big impact events ‘reset’ the age of the rock, any date we measure from the sample can tell us when the impact happened," Michelle Thompson, a planetary scientist at Purdue University, tells Popular Mechanics. "By doing this for lots of different rocks, we can understand the bombardment history of the moon."

Photo credit: NASA
Photo credit: NASA

Most of the lunar samples collected during the six Apollo missions are tightly sealed in storage containers at the Lunar Sample Laboratory Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Some of the samples were split into small pieces or sliced into thin sections and examined as soon after they arrived on Earth. Others remain untouched, preserved until technological advances can reveal even more about their origin. Scientists opened one sample, also from Apollo 17, just two years ago, months after the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11.

“What we learn from these samples is kind of the same stuff that we learn from samples on the Earth,” Petro says. “How did that material form? What is it made of? What kind of rock is it?”

But unlike rocks collected on Earth, lunar rock samples are extremely old. The moon, which researchers estimate to be at least 4.5 billion years old, doesn’t have rock-recycling plate tectonics like Earth does, and there aren’t the same erosive properties that eat away at Earth-bound rock outcrops. This means the lunar surface is home to some of the oldest rocks we can get our gloves on.

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These samples also help researchers better understand the harsh environment of space. "If you look at the surface of the rock under a microscope, you can see all of these micro craters, produced by hypervelocity dust particles impacting the surface," Thompson says. "While Earth has an atmosphere to protect us, the moon doesn’t, and it's constantly bombarded with this dust."

Photo credit: TIM SLOAN - Getty Images
Photo credit: TIM SLOAN - Getty Images

At times, NASA has struggled to keep track of all these samples, many of which have been cleaved apart into tinier pieces and loaned to museums and other research institutions around the world. President Richard Nixon gave several lunar souvenirs away as gifts to foreign dignitaries, who subsequently misplaced them. In 2002, three Johnson Space Center interns brazenly stole $2 million worth of moon rocks. The FBI later recovered the samples when the ringleader of the heist tried to sell them on the internet.

Sample 76015,143 isn’t the first lunar sample that has made its way into the Oval Office. On July 20, 1999, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins presented President Bill Clinton with sample 10057,30, a sizable moon rock they collected during their historic mission to the lunar surface. (A 2.375-inch sliver pulled from the sample’s parent rock, 10057, was sandwiched between two panes of nitrogen-filled glass and fitted into a stained glass window at the Washington National Cathedral in 1974.)

The placement of sample 76015,143 in the Oval Office may signify more than Biden's commitment to science and technology; it may also hint at the direction in which he'll steer NASA.

In 2019, NASA unveiled the Artemis Program, which aims to send the first woman and next man to the moon in 2024. It's a tight deadline, and the program has already experienced a number of delays and cost overruns. Many have questioned whether the Biden administration will choose to refocus efforts elsewhere in the solar system.

In its press release announcing the placement of sample 76015,143, NASA claimed the sample signifies a "support for America’s current moon to Mars exploration approach."

Sample 76015,143 may be as much of a window into the future as it is into the past.

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