Editor’s Note: Robin George Andrews (@SquigglyVolcano) is a volcanologist-turned-freelance science journalist, writing for The New York Times, Scientific American, National Geographic, The Atlantic and more. He is also the author of an upcoming book on volcanoes around the solar system. The opinions expressed here are his own. Read more opinion at CNN
The day after the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, the Washington Post reported on the aesthetics of the newly redecorated Oval Office. Among all sorts of noteworthy items, a moon rock was found to be sitting on a bookshelf. Social media rejoiced at the sight, an indubitably cool artifact to find inside the White House. But what many didn’t know was that this rock, dubbed Lunar Sample 76015,143, had been on an Odyssean journey to get there, one 3.9 billion years in the making.
The current thinking is that 4.5 billion years ago, a protoplanet the size of Mars slammed into a magma ocean-covered Earth. Debris from the baby planet and the spaceborne projectile was sent into orbit, eventually clumping together to make the moon.
The solar system was a bit like the inside of a pinball machine back then, with countless would-be worlds crashing into each other. Like the adolescent Earth, the youthful moon was a target too, with several enormous impacts carving out ginormous basins on its surface. And around 600 million years after it was formed, the moon rendezvoused with a rock the size of New Jersey, weighing about 25,000 trillion tons and moving at a speed of around 52,000 miles per hour.
This interloping giant rock, which hit the moon at an inclined angle, disintegrated upon impact, sending boulders shooting across the lunar surface, cutting deep, long grooves into the crust as if it were attacked by a cosmic, clawed beast. The impact would have been way more powerful than a gargantuan volcanic explosion like Mount St. Helens, which itself had unleashed more energy than the sum total of all the explosives used during World War II, including the two nuclear bombs. The rock carved out a circular chasm some 710 miles across. For the sake of comparison, the asteroid that careened into Earth 66 million years ago and heralded the end of the age of the dinosaurs excavated a pit a mere 110 miles in diameter.
Around 250 million years later, lava later poured into this great depression, forming a sea of molten rock named Mare Imbrium, the “Sea of Rains.” And as lava lapped at the shores of this magnificent desolation, a curious rock sat nearby: a mangled amalgam of crushed sediment and once-molten matter, a product of the ferocity of that ancient, colossal impact.
For what seemed like an eternity, that rock sat silently on the moon, hit by the occasional micrometeorite. And 3.9 billion years after it was formed, in the twilight days of 1972, two visitors from another world, Apollo 17 astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt – Schmitt was the first and only geologist sent to the moon – saw it glinting in starlight.
The last two people to set foot on the moon carved off a chunk and brought a sample back home. Like the other rocks brought back by the Apollo missions, it was housed at the Lunar Sample Laboratory Facility at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. There, it was broken up, and its pieces – including number 76015,143 – were examined by scientists hoping to unravel the secrets of the moon’s origins and its evolution, as well as providing them with a window into Earth’s obfuscated distant past.
That we can host such stunning off-world geologic treasures on Earth and decode the epochal stories they tell without needing to invent time travel is a remarkable achievement. But Lunar Sample 76015,143 isn’t sitting in any old building. It’s in the office of the most powerful person in the world. That imbues this lithic archive with novel significance.
For the last four years, the Trump administration threw science into the sewers, treating it like an inconvenience at best and a shameful pursuit at worst. More than 400,000 Americans died of Covid-19 during Donald Trump’s time in office. We may never know how many lives could have been saved had the former president not shown an allergic reaction to reality – not only on the pandemic, but on another death-dealing existential crisis: climate change.
Biden is clearly ushering in a new era. Immediately after the inauguration, the new administration went to task, initiating their 198-page plan to defeat the pandemic while beginning the difficult work of stemming climate change. The Oval Office’s moon rock is, for many, a cathartic sight, a symbol of the new President’s science-driven agenda, of his administration’s adherence to facts and to objective truths, something America needs now more than ever.
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Landing astronauts on the moon was a political ambition first and foremost. But that rock, on loan from NASA at the request of the Biden administration, represents what can happen when a national priority is made of the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. If America can send people across the expanse and bring them back with geologic treasures, then it can also bring an end to a pandemic.
Ideally, this rock also represents a calling card to the stars. We can only comprehend our place in the cosmos if we go out and explore it – and look not just to the moon, but beyond it. NASA is about to land its Perseverance rover on Mars, the first step in an 11-year operation to bring back the first pristine rocks from that planet’s surface. One day, astronauts will be hauling Martian rocks home themselves. But who will be the first Earth-born emissaries to the Red Planet?
A future president of the United States may have a piece of Mars sitting on her bookshelf. If so, I suspect Americans will look back in pride at the moment they saw a moon rock sitting in Biden’s Oval Office. It may mark the day the White House was exorcised of its ignorance, transforming once again – and, we hope, forevermore – into a place that champions science.