Want to see a moon rock? There’s one in downtown Tucson

By Kyle Mittan, University Communications


The rock is in the museum’s Mineral Evolution Gallery, the first gallery guests enter when leaving the lobby.
Kyle Mittan/Academic Communications

It took six days in space – and more than 18 hours of exploration on the surface of the Moon – for NASA astronauts David Scott and James Irwin to collect the 170 pounds of moon rock they brought back to Earth as part of NASA’s Apollo 15 mission in 1971.

Anyone in the Tucson area this summer is probably no more than a half-hour drive away from a quarter-pound piece of this transportation.

A moon rock is on display until mid-August at the University of Arizona’s Alfie Norville Gem & Mineral Museum, thanks to a six-month loan from NASA. He arrived at the museum in early February as the museum prepared for a grand opening in its new space at the historic Pima County Courthouse during the annual Tucson Gem, Mineral & Fossil Showcase.

Weighing 4 ounces and measuring about 3 inches long, the rock is the largest specimen NASA has loaned to museums from its collection at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, said Elisabeth Gassexhibition specialist at the Alfie Norville Gem & Mineral Museum.

The rock is in the museum’s Mineral Evolution Gallery, the first gallery guests enter when leaving the lobby.

“It’s a privilege to have this rock here,” Gass said. “Not every museum is qualified to have one due to the strict security protocols needed to keep the rock safe.”

Mark Kelly, a U.S. senator from Arizona and retired astronaut, was instrumental in helping the museum obtain the rock, Gass said. During a visit to the museum before its official opening, Kelly noticed that the museum had no moon rock and mentioned it to museum staff.

Later, even before the museum had applied for a moon rock loan, a NASA official called to ask if the museum was interested.

Kelly, apparently, had reached out to her NASA colleagues and “argued enough for them to call us,” Gass said with a laugh. It also helped speed up the application process, she added.

NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy, during a visit to the UArizona campus earlier this month, expressed her gratitude to Kelly for her help in getting the rock to the museum.

“I think NASA can afford to give away a slice of this rock. Because we’re going back to get more,” Melroy said, referring to the upcoming Artemis missions, which aim to land the first woman and the first person of color on the moon.

Apollo 15 was the first of NASA’s Apollo “J” missions, which gave astronauts more time to explore the lunar surface than previous Apollo voyages. Scott, the mission commander, and Irwin, the lunar module pilot, made the trip to the surface of the moon; Alfred Worden, the mission’s third astronaut, piloted the command module and remained inside the module as it orbited the moon.

The lunar module landed in the plains near Hadley Rille, a valley on the moon. The area resembles the foothills at the base of many mountain ranges on Earth, Gass said.

Scott and Irwin spent about three days exploring the area. The mission marked the first time humans have driven a car on the moon, with the couple traveling 17.5 miles in the rover.

The rock now in the museum was collected from Station 8, a site about 410 feet from where the lunar module landed. Station 8 is also where astronauts set up the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package, or ALSEP, which NASA used until 1977 to collect data on the lunar surface.

The rock is a piece of marine basalt, a volcanic mineral found on the moon’s flat lowlands, said Gass, who is also a geologist. These lowlands, she added, can be seen in images of the moon taken from Earth; they appear as darker, shaded areas, contrasting with the lighter areas, which are the mountains. According to NASA, lunar basalts can be up to 3.3 billion years old, more than 98% of the minerals found on Earth.

The rock is at least the second moonstone that can be found in Tucson. The Pima Air & Space Museum also exhibits a rock, on permanent loan from NASA.

The Alfie Norville Gemstone and Mineral Museum stands out from other mineralogy museums as a destination to see both gemstones and minerals; minerals are inorganic solids that occur naturally in the earth’s crust, while gemstones are minerals that have been combined with something else for aesthetics.

Although moon rock is grounded in scientific discovery, there’s a lot to admire about it for those who just want to look at something pretty, Gass said.

“To see an unweathered, unweathered moon rock is really special,” Gass said.

The Alfie Norville Gem & Mineral Museum is located at the historic Pima County Courthouse, 115 N. Church Ave. The museum is open Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with last tickets sold out at 3 p.m. More information is available on the museum’s website.

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