To the moon and back

Catriona Donnelly
Tuesday, 9 March 2021

Four tiny specks of rock, encased in an acrylic dome and mounted above a small Australian flag, may appear a little underwhelming at first glance. But the story behind them far outweighs their tiny size.

The specks are fragments of moon rock, and one of the most significant objects held in the collection of the National Archives of Australia.

Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin collected the fragments during their historic moonwalk in July 1969.  The Australian flag also travelled to the moon and back as part of the Apollo 11 mission.

The success of the Apollo 11 mission fulfilled former US President John F Kennedy’s ambitious goal, set in 1961, to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

Moon landing

Around 6:15 am AEST on 21 July 1969, Apollo 11’s Lunar Module Eagle landed on the Moon. At 12:56 pm, American astronaut Neil Armstrong made history when he set foot on the lunar surface. Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin followed 19 minutes later.

The third member of the crew, Michael Collins, remained in lunar orbit, in the Command Module Columbia, while Armstrong and Aldrin conducted experiments and collected samples on the surface.

During their moonwalk, the astronauts collected a total of 22 kilograms of rock and dust around the lunar landing site, including samples of basalt – a volcanic rock – dating back almost 4 billion years.

The fragments of moon rock in the acrylic dome weigh approximately 0.05 gram, the equivalent of two grains of rice.

Presidential gifts

US President Richard Nixon gave gifts of moon rock to 135 ‘friendly’ countries to celebrate the success of the Apollo 11 mission.

Gifts were also made to US states and territories including Guam, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and American Samoa. The flags of each country, state and territory were carried to the moon and back.

Two plaques attached to the base of the presentation stand read:

Presented to the people of the Commonwealth of Australia by Richard Nixon President of the United States.

This flag of your nation was carried to the Moon and back by Apollo 11 and this fragment of the Moon’s surface was brought to Earth by the crew of that first manned lunar landing.

In January 1970, representatives from the United States, including Vice-President Spiro Agnew and Apollo 10 Astronaut Colonel Thomas Stafford, travelled to Australia to present the moon rock fragments to Prime Minister John Gorton at a ceremony at Parliament House.

Employees and their families from Australia’s space-tracking stations and the Department of Supply (which managed Woomera and the Australian tracking stations) were invited to attend the presentation ceremony.

Stafford also presented a photograph taken during the Apollo 10 mission, showing Australia, New Zealand and North America from space.