The Harvard Museum of Natural History Secures a Lunar Sample from NASA for Cosmic Origins Exhibition

July 20, 2019

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., July 20, 2019— On this day in 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped down from the Apollo lunar lander and became the first human to make direct contact with a celestial body: Earth’s Moon. The Apollo 11 engineering and flight team had prepared extensively for that historic day. As millions watched on their televisions, and as others listened to Armstrong’s famed words across the airwaves, the 1969 moonwalk would forever be imprinted in the American public’s collective memory. Not only did the Apollo 11 team make history, it sparked future scientists to embark on serious astronomical inquiry for decades to come. This scientific research has vastly expanded the understanding of our planet, solar system, and wider universe.

The Harvard Museum of Natural History marks the 50th anniversary of the first manned mission to the Moon with the unveiling of the Cosmic Origins exhibition in the museum’s Earth & Planetary Sciences gallery. An original sample of lunar rock, collected by Astronaut Alan L. Bean from the Moon’s surface during the NASA Apollo 12 mission on November 19, 1969, is displayed as the highlight of the mini-exhibit.

This rock is an ilmenite basalt, which formed from cooled magma roughly 3.2 billion years ago when the Moon was geologically active. Its presence on the Moon suggests that the lunar surface was once molten, a theory reinforced by other rock samples collected during the Apollo missions. The museum is honored to be able to share it with the public.

At the Lyndon B. Johnson NASA Space Center, scientists study such samples to tease apart the history of the Moon, and to generate hypotheses about its formation. Refining the details of our Moon’s origin story will continue to engage astrophysicists and geologists for many years to come.

The science behind the exhibit was informed by Rebecca A. Fischer, Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Alyssa Goodman, Robert Wheeler Wilson Professor of Applied Astronomy, co-Director for Science at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and Research Associate of the Smithsonian Institution, and a team of Harvard University graduate students from both Earth and Planetary Sciences and Astronomy.

Fischer says, "Our understanding of the formation and evolution of the Moon and its relationship to Earth has benefited tremendously from the lunar rock samples returned from the Apollo missions, one of which is on display in the Cosmic Origins exhibit. With new advances in science over the years, we continue to learn more and more from these priceless samples. Ongoing research in Harvard's Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences utilizes these samples to better understand how the Moon and Earth formed and what the Moon is made of."

Visitors will be able to interact with the following features to investigate the origins of, and processes shaping planetary bodies and stars:

  • Touchable specimens such as large iron and nickel meteorites, and a Coahuila-based specimen from a meteor shower that long ago dropped over 4,400 pounds of fragments in Mexico. The Mineralogical and Geological Museum of Harvard holds the largest mass of Coahuila meteorites in the world.
  • Colorful visuals, such as a wall-sized mural made from the NASA photo of the Crab Nebula.
  • A media station including the following captivating videos:

John Huchra’s Universe: A tribute to Professor John Huchra’s influential work conducting 3D CFA Redshift surveys, this video outlines his principal goal to learn the three-dimensional distribution of matter in the universe. It also chronicles his projects with other astronomers, including a fruitful collaboration with Margaret Geller, his colleague at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian.

Galileo & Jupiter’s Moons: An informative video on Galileo’s study of Jupiter’s moons, Copernicus’s sun-centered universe theory, and our relationship with the Moon.

Asteroids, Craters & Meteorites: A detailed overview of how asteroids are formed, the role of the Asteroid Belt in generating asteroids that can have an impact on Earth, and the science behind the formation of craters on planetary bodies.

Janis Sacco, Director of Exhibitions for the Harvard Museums of Science & Culture, says,

“In the 50 years since we first set foot on the Moon, humanity’s understanding of the origins and evolution, not only of our planet and solar system, but also of the vast wider universe, has grown astronomically. Cosmic Origins is a select sampling of this growing body of knowledge, informed by collaboration with Harvard faculty and researchers in the departments of Earth and Planetary Sciences and Astronomy. From my perspective, what is most exciting about the science in Cosmic Origins is what it reveals about common origins and the nature of all that we know in the universe. Everything we can see and touch, the processes that shape worlds—even life itself—all arise from the activities of stars. For me, it is a wondrous thing that we are all connected to the larger cosmos in this way.”

Lunar Sample #12022,237 courtesy of NASA, National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Cosmic Origins is a new, permanent addition to the Earth and Planetary Sciences gallery. The NASA lunar sample is on loan to the museum until November 27, 2019.

This presentation is given in memory of John Huchra (1948–2010), a Robert O. and Holly Thomis Doyle Professor of Cosmology, Harvard University. through the generosity of: Rebecca Henderson, Ph.D. ‘88, John and Natty McArthur University Professor at Harvard Business School. The concept for this kiosk, as well as the videos John Huchra’s Universe and Galileo and Jupiter’s Moons, were developed under a grant from the Harvard Initiative for Teaching and Learning, awarded to Alyssa Goodman, Robert Wheeler Wilson Professor of Applied Astronomy at Harvard University. She was assisted by Yuan-Sen Ting, Meredith MacGregor, and Ryan Loomis. Moving images of the universe were created using WorldWide Telescope, a free “Universe Information System,” created and developed at Microsoft Researchunder the leadership of Curtis Wong and Jonathan Fay. Members of the Seamless Astronomy Group at Harvard advised Microsoft Research on WorldWide Telescope, with additional support from NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the Smithsonian Institution.

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About the Mineralogical and Geological Museum at Harvard University

Harvard University has one of the world's most important collections of minerals. With over 100,000 specimens, the collection is renowned for its large number of different species, the quality of samples, extensive holdings of New England material, and a broad collection of crystalized gold. Continuously curated since its inception in 1784, the collection is a widely recognized treasure. It ranks with the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History as one of the three most celebrated collections in the country. The public displays are a major public attraction with some 300,000 annual visitors and the research collections have contributed to hundreds of scientific studies. The current curator, Raquel Alonso Perez, Ph.D., FGA, was appointed in 2014. One of her first significant endeavors was to renovate the public Earth & Planetary Sciences gallery at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, as well as the collections storage spaces. Her main research interests include mineralogy and petrology with a special focus on the geochemistry of ore and gem deposits.

About the Harvard Museum of Natural History

With a mission to enhance public understanding and appreciation of the natural world and the human place in it, the Harvard Museum of Natural History draws on the University’s collections and research to present a historic and interdisciplinary exploration of science and nature. More than 300,000 visitors annually make it the University’s most-visited museum.

The Harvard Museum of Natural History is located at 26 Oxford Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, an 8-minute walk through historic Harvard Yard from the Harvard Square MBTA station. For general information on exhibits, public events, parking, and times for free visitation for Massachusetts residents, visit the website at, or call 617-495-3045.

The Harvard Museum of Natural History is one of the four Harvard Museums of Science & Culture.

Media contact:



Bethany Carland-Adams
Public Relations Specialist
26 Oxford Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
617 496 6064 office



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