Dennis Overbye: 40 Years on, Reflections in a Sliver of the Moon

Roundup: Talking About History

In April of 1972, as John Young and Charles Duke were roaming around the highlands of the Moon, they picked up a bluish-black rock.

It wasn’t a particularly pretty rock. Its glassy surface was pitted and pocked. It looked as if it had been blasted out of a nearby crater. The highlands were littered with rocks like it.

The astronauts brought it and 200 pounds of other rocks back to Earth as the bounty from Apollo 16. At the Lunar Receiving Laboratory in Houston, scientists ascertained that Blue Genesis, as it was once called, weighed 12 pounds, and they cut it to pieces to send out for study. Geologists estimate that it could be 4.23 billion years old.

Since 1981, a sliver of that rock has resided like a wedge of old cheese — a light gray speckled filling inside a dark rind — at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan.

I made its acquaintance a couple of weeks ago. I was trying to come to grips with the fact that it had been 40 years since Neil Armstrong made those first footprints in the lunar soil, on July 20, 1969, to be exact. My inbox was filling daily with invitations to interview people who had been around then, but I thought it was a little embarrassing.

Since when has NASA been about the past?

The first lunar landing was an exclamation point in human history and should have felt like the culmination of boyhood science fiction dreams. But, I recall being disappointed back then by the actual stepping out on the Moon. Peering at grainy shadows on my neighbor’s television, I could barely tell what was going on except that we were waiting endlessly....

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