In 1964, NASA tried to obtain lunar rocks without actually going to the Moon. The initiative, called Project Moon Harvest, enlisted the aid of farmers and schoolkids to dig around western Iowa in search of possible lunar meteorites.
As Air & Space magazine reports, the project was based on the then-popular belief that tektites (a form of natural glass) and other Earth stones might actually be moon rocks, blasted into space by meteor strikes and sent plunging to Earth. "Presumably, [Earth] is strewn with billions of lunar fragments," wrote the New York Times.
However, none of these alleged fragments had ever been identified — NASA scientists believed most people never looked twice at them because they closely resembled ordinary Earth rocks. But there was still some hope for western Iowa, which remained "remarkably free of native stones," according to the New York Times. There, the deep soil had been deposited by wind during the last Ice Age, making the region ideal for both farming and uncovering ancient rocks.
NASA was looking for any geological information that could assist in the design of the Apollo lander. Scientists had a variety of theories, some of which were ominous: deep dust layers that would swallow a lander, or structures of frothy, frozen mounds that would crumble at a touch.
So, during spring plowing season, NASA educators visited Iowa schools with the irresistible sales pitch: "You may be the first person to find a piece of the Moon!"
A mountain of would-be moon material was submitted for testing at NASA's Ames Research Center in California. Promising specimens were crushed, examined by microscope and spectrograph, then probed for evidence of the superheating and cosmic-ray activity characteristic of exposure to space and atmospheric entry to Earth.
Yet the project's final harvest …. produced nothing extraterrestrial….Tektites, it turns out, are terrestrial rocks that were ejected through Earth's atmosphere by meteor impacts or volcanic explosions and then fell back to the ground, so they indeed show evidence of atmospheric entry, but are hardly the natural moonshots that 1960s-era scientists had hoped for…. Real lunar meteorites wouldn't be recovered until scientists found some in 1979 in Antarctica.
At least NASA sent the samples back to the kids, along with a keepsake letter of thanks.
The wonderful oral history Apollo: The Race to the Moon tells how NASA made its final decision about the composition of the lunar surface. After staring at the photos, one engineer blurted out, ''Arizona! The Moon has just got to be like Arizona!'' And so, the lunar module's landing gear was built to withstand the shock of a hard touchdown on the Arizona desert.