IOWA CITY — Just months after joining the University of Iowa faculty as an assistant professor in the Department of Geoscience, David W. Peate went to the campus’ Department of Public Safety in 2005 with an unusual request.
Can you hold on to these moon rocks?
“NASA has some strict rules on this, and after talking with Chuck Green — the then-Director of Public Safety — we decided that the best solution was to keep them locked in the University of Iowa police gun safe when they weren’t being used,” said Peate, who today is chair of the UI Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences.
Since arriving on the UI campus in 2004, Peate has taken the initiative on several occasions to bring to campus some of the thousands of moon rock and dust samples collected by the Apollo missions. He did so through a NASA program allowing kits of lunar and meteorite samples to go out on loan for educational purposes.
Peate has used the samples — loaned out for one or two weeks at a time — in his advanced undergraduate and graduate Igneous Petrology classes, often arranging an additional lab for other students interested in seeing the lunar material. A geology professor from Cornell College in Mount Vernon also has brought her students to the UI campus when the moon rocks are visiting.
“But I don’t think a lot of my colleagues in the community were aware you could do this,” he said.
Peate himself wasn’t exactly sure of the process when he arrived on campus 15 years ago. But he began digging into it — having previously viewed lunar samples at the University of Cambridge in England.
“One of the highlights of my geology classes as an undergraduate in the UK in the early 1980s was the day when we had a set of lunar rocks to study using petrographic microscopes,” he said.
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Although paperwork for NASA’s loan program isn’t too onerous, Peate said, it did require the UI Office of the General Counsel to sign a detailed contract about how the samples would be handled and cared for given their “almost irreplaceable nature.”
“It’s been 50 years since these were collected, and it’s not clear how soon it will be before we get any more,” Peate said.
Because NASA requires its loaned kits be kept in a safe space that is regularly checked by security personnel, Iowa determined a gun safe inside the UI police department would be the best place for the moon rocks, which come in an 8-inch thick locked briefcase.
Once the rocks are on campus, Peate could check out the kit with his ID, but couldn’t let the samples out of sight while in his possession. “Carrying it across to Trowbridge Hall … I always wondered whether anyone would guess that I was actually carrying pieces of the moon in the case,” Peate said.
Although Peate hasn’t brought moon rocks to campus for several years — doing so hasn’t aligned with his current teaching schedule — he’s hoping to bring them back in the coming spring semester.
In addition to providing a memorable experience for students, it allows them to glimpse “pristine” minerals rarely seen on Earth.
“We are used to looking at rocks from the Earth that have been altered by weather and other surfaces,” Peate said. “But there are not oceans of water on the moon. So when you look at those rocks, even though they’re the same minerals, they just look different. They haven’t been altered at all.”
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