Apollo 11’s moon landing on July 20, 1969 provided WU scientists with an historic opportunity.
Physicists at WU were among those chosen to receive samples of the first rocks brought back from the moon. Professor Robert Walker, a member of the Lunar Sample Advisory Planning Team (LSAPT), which advised NASA on the distribution of moon samples, headed the research at WU. That research concentrated on the radiation history of the moon.
After the landing and a brief quarantine of the samples (to ensure they carried no dangerous alien life), WU scientists investigated solar particle holes in the moon rocks in order to determine the activity level of the sun during a certain period. The presence of fission particles would tell them the age of the moon rocks. Walker and his team also hoped that the rocks would help in the search for the super heavy stable “element X,” a search which occupied many physicists at the time. Though the WU team thought it unlikely that the moon rocks would evidence element X, they tested for its presence by comparing the uranium content of the rocks to the number of spontaneous fission events produced.
The moon rock experiments were covered in detail by Student Life and Alumni News, along with debates over the principles guiding the NASA project. Walker noted that international cooperation was evident in the distribution of moon rocks to international labs, but less so in the decision by Congress to plant an American flag on the moon. One commentator wrote to Student Life saying he had “words of praise for Apollo 11” but also “serious doubts” about the “jealous pride with which [the mission] was carried out.” Nonetheless, the excitement of the community at this historic moment is palpable in the pages of WU publications.