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Moon rock on Joe Biden's desk raises hopes for lunar return

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Moon rock on Joe Biden's desk raises hopes for lunar return
The moon rock known as Lunar Sample 76015,143, installed last week as an exhibit in the Oval Office by President Joe Biden, was retrieved in 1972 from a large boulder during the Apollo 17 mission. Photo courtesy of NASA

ORLANDO, Fla., Jan. 26 (UPI) -- A moon rock that President Joe Biden has placed in the Oval Office came from the last Apollo mission in 1972, raising hopes that he will support a new lunar landing program already underway.

The White House said the moon rock was part of Biden's goal to have the office reflect the best of American accomplishments.

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Astronauts chipped the rock from a large boulder at the base of the North Massif mountain in the Imbrium Impact Basin. The stone's official name is Lunar Sample 76015,143, which refers to NASA's generic numbering system for more than 840 pounds of rock retrieved during Apollo missions.

Scientists were pleased with the testament to science and space exploration. Ellen Stofan, director of the National Air and Space Museum, posted a message of gratitude on Twitter for Biden's choice of the moon rock.

"Look at what we can do together as a country when we are united," said Stofan, a former NASA chief scientist whom Washington insiders believe is a front-runner for the NASA administrator job.

The rock is nearly 4 billion years old -- older than the oldest intact rock on Earth, said Tim Swindle, a professor of lunar and planetary studies at the University of Arizona. It came from the Lunar Sample Laboratory Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

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Astronaut Harrison "Jack" Schmitt, the only geologist to visit the moon, chipped the sample during the Apollo 17 mission from an area on the near side in which the last major asteroid impact occurred.

"Science can't tell us what society should do, but can tell us how the world works and what will happen if we do certain things," Swindle, who is also director of the Tucson-based Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, said in an email.

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"It's refreshing to see an appreciation of that," he added.

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"Rocks like this provide a window into what was happening at a time when we have no record on Earth," Swindle said. "There were a lot of asteroids hitting the moon, and almost certainly its next-door neighbor the Earth, at that time."

Swindle has studied moon rocks, notably for the release of gases trapped in them that indicates what the lunar environment was like when they were collected.

"One of my favorite uses is applying techniques that didn't exist at the time we brought the samples back ... to ask questions [about the history of the moon] that were too audacious for 1972," Swindle said.

NASA said the rock on loan to the Oval Office is "in symbolic recognition of earlier generations' ambitions and accomplishments, and support for America's current moon to Mars exploration approach."

The Trump administration had charged NASA with returning astronauts to the moon by 2024 -- a goal that is unlikely because Congress hasn't fully funded NASA's requests for the lunar missions.

Apollo 11: Big moments in historic mission to moon 50 years ago

NASA named these three astronauts as the prime crew of the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission in May 1969 in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Posing from left to right, are Neil A. Armstrong, commander; Michael Collins, command module pilot; and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot. File Photo courtesy of NASA | License Photo

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