With more than just a little excitement, I bent over and gently touched the small, black stone with my right index finger. It was smooth to the touch, having been polished to a high gloss finish. The color was a dark gray – almost black, really – and when you looked closely, you could almost see your reflection. The rock, a mare basalt, was smaller than I had anticipated, about the size of a large postage stamp and a half-inch high. Other than these characteristics, it was an ordinary rock.
Ordinary, aside from the fact that it was more than 3.75 billion years old and was ferried a distance of 250,000 miles as a souvenir from the last manned mission to the moon, Apollo 17. The rock is just one of seven specimens in the world that the public is allowed to touch.
Touching the moon rock is the main attraction of Driven to Explore, a new exhibit from NASA. The exhibit will be traveling the country to promote awareness of the new Constellation Program and celebrate the 40th anniversary of man’s first steps on the moon.
NASA’s Constellation program is the culmination of all the innovations the space administration has developed and lays the stepping stones for deeper space exploration. As the space shuttle program is retired next year, two new vehicles, the Ares I and Ares V, will soon take center stage.
These craft, similar to the old Apollo vehicles, rely on tested technology to take man to the International Space Station in 2015, and back to the moon in 2020, with an ultimate goal of a lunar outpost that will act as a springboard for longer trips to Mars.
Driven to Explore is so new, on just its third stop, that NASA hasn’t caught up with all of the complementary Web information. The exhibit will be in Kansas through April, and Oklahoma and Nebraska in May. A schedule of other dates and stops will soon be listed here. Be sure to bookmark and check back later.
Besides the moon rock, the exhibit packs a heckuva punch within its limited footprint (the exhibit is mostly displayed in a trailer that can be hauled by an ordinary pickup). Detailed panels, informative handouts and an interactive photo booth provide enough interest, information and fun for a nice family outing.
"We’ve had school kids, grandmothers and everyone in between," said David Kovel, a NASA systems engineer currently traveling with the exhibit. "Everyone seems to be really enjoying the displays and seeing and touching the moon rock."
By the time NASA returns to the moon, there will have been at least four generations of people who have no personal recollection of the moment man first landed on the moon. And when the next lucky astronaut exits the lunar lander and steps foot on the moon’s rocky surface, thanks to Driven to Explore, we’ll be able to say that we touched it first.