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Apollo lunar rocks still offer clues to scientists

If not for a St. Louis scientist and a few of his colleagues, NASA may never have collected moon rocks.

In this July 20, 1969 file photo, Astronauts Neil Armstrong, left, and Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr., place an American flag on the surface of the moon, near the lunar lander that brought them to the lunar surface.

NASA/AP

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Forty years after the Apollo 11 astronauts made their historic lunar landing, the rocks they collected are still helping researchers learn more about the moon, the solar system, even about how life on Earth began.

But if not for a St. Louis scientist and a few of his colleagues, NASA may never have collected moon rocks in the first place.

It was 40 years ago Monday that Neil Armstrong first set foot on the dusty lunar surface, announcing it was a small step for a man but “a giant leap for mankind.” During that mission, the astronauts scooped up rocks and dirt from the moon and brought the material back home for study.

“It all started with Apollo 11,” said Randy Korotev, a lunar geochemist at Washington University in St. Louis, where hundreds of moon rocks are still stored and studied. “Apollo 11 answered a tremendous amount of scientific questions, but it also introduced new questions we hadn’t even thought about.”

The Apollo rocks might not have been collected at all if not for the efforts of Washington University physics professor Robert Walker and a small group of other scientists. Walker, who died in 2004, helped persuade NASA to not only collect samples but build a repository for their storage and study at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

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