HOUSTON - When astronauts returned from the moon 49 years ago, they brought home treasures.
The jewels are not on display in a museum or for sale in a store. Instead, they are locked away inside a giant vault that stands inside a secure building on the very protected grounds of the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Accessing the vault took 20 minutes and required special clothing and two authorized NASA employees with special combinations to unlock the vault.
"Each one of the cabinets is just storage for the Apollo samples," said Apollo samples curator Ryan Zeigler. "This is the Apollo 11 samples. So all of the samples that were brought back by the Apollo 11 mission are stored in this one cabinet."
The cabinet contains the samples collected by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
"Each of the cabinets is labeled, and we segregate the samples for both contamination and for organization purposes," Zeigler said.
PHOTOS: A look inside the moonwalk vault
Each of the samples is double- or triple-sealed in Teflon bags.
"We're in the Apollo sample laboratory, and this is where most of the moon rocks on Earth are stored," Zeigler said.
He said nearly 400 samples are distributed each year to scientists for research and teaching. He showed a small piece a sample that became the most studied lunar sample on Earth.
"So you're looking at a small piece of the largest single sample collected on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission," Zeigler said. "This was collected by Neil Armstrong right at the end of the Apollo 11 mission. So Neil was a very practical person. And when he looked at the rock box that was half full of samples, he thought, 'I'm not bringing that back half empty.' So he got a shovel and literally shoveled several shovels full of soil into the rock box and sealed it up."
The sample weighed about 11 pounds. It is one-fifth of the samples brought back from Apollo 11.
"This is probably the best-studied sample on Earth, because when it came back after Apollo 11, it had a lot more of it than they were expecting. And no one had ever studied the Apollo 11 samples before," Zeigler said. "So this was the sample that they were able to use for a lot of the studies that were sort of extra. They weren't planned. 'But we have all this extra material. Why don't we try this? Try this.' They got a lot of better science out of it."
These international treasures are now stored in the watertight and airtight vault 46 feet above sea level. NASA took precautions against Houston’s tropical weather.
"Obviously, hurricanes are a fact of life here in Houston," Zeigler said. "We've designed the entire facility to be hurricane-proof. And that's not a challenge. We are rated to withstand a Category 4 hurricane here in the building. But beyond that, during a hurricane, the samples would be secured in one of our vaults in airtight containers."
What we learn from moon rocks, both large and small, could help us better understand our world.
"The Apollo samples are a unique resource for the U.S. government," Zeigler said. "We go to great lengths to keep them safe and secure, but also to share them with scientists around the world so they can study them and learn about the secrets of the universe."
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