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Moon research: the largest collection of lunar rocks on the Earth

Fifty years ago next week, Apollo 11 takes off for the moon. During the Apollo program, a dozen astronauts traveled 240,000 kilometers on the surface of the moon, collecting hundreds of pounds of rocks and earth.

"CBS This Morning" had a rare glimpse into the Lunar Sample Laboratory: the secure, windowless center of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, home to 80 percent of the lunar samples reported. Inside the laboratory, white anti-contamination suits are essential.

"It's by far the largest collection in the world," said Ryan Ziegler, conservator of Apollo's sample at NASA.

During the six Apollo missions that landed men on the moon, astronauts collected 842 pounds of lunar rock and soil. The NASA collection includes what is perhaps the oldest rock of the moon: the rock is 4.4 billion years old and the moon is only 4.4 billion years old.

It also presents the latest sample collected during the Apollo 11 mission. "Neil Armstrong decided that the box containing the samples looked empty," Ziegler said. "So he shoveled four or five shovels into the box."

Ziegler said the soil is "probably the most valuable sample" that Apollo 11 reported. "If I could pick a sample of Apollo 11, that's it," he said.

The nitrogen pumped into stainless steel cabinets preserves the rocks in the interior. For a trained person with three pairs of gloves, it is a practical collection.

"It never stops being fun – it's amazing," Ziegler said. "Every day I come to the lab, it's like the first day."

Many rocks have stories – like the largest stone collected during the Apollo missions, which Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke had to wrap on the side of his spacesuit because it was too much heavy.

"Working against this suit was demanding," said Duke, now 83. "So after eight hours of costume, you were really tired, you put on your gloves and … come in and get out of the car trying to get down."

Ziegler said it was worth it. "It turned out to be a very important sample," he said.

The samples revealed secrets, which led scientists to believe that a planet the size of Mars had collided with the Earth and blew up a ring of debris that had formed the moon there are about 4.5 billion years. And in a cupboard, there are the last six samples of the primitive moon, still unsealed and un-studied. NASA will soon open three, sparing the rest for the next generation of researchers.

"The rocks of the moon taught us about the entire solar system," said Ziegler.

"Can we say that the most important geological discovery of all time?" asked CBS News correspondent Mark Strassmann.

"I'm sure there are people who will argue with that," Ziegler said. "But I think that they would lose."

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