Saturday 22 October 2016

How Richard Nixon's moon dust gift ended up in a No 10 cupboard

Published 30/12/2015 | 00:11

Neil Armstrong walking on the moon in 1969
Neil Armstrong walking on the moon in 1969

They were supposed to represent the enduring friendship of the American people and a lasting monument to man's achievement on reaching the moon.

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But just 15 years after president Richard Nixon presented the four tiny fragments of moon dust to prime minister Harold Wilson, it seems they had lost their lustre.

Government files now released by the National Archives at Kew show that the once-treasured relic was discovered sadly languishing in a cupboard in Downing Street.

When No 10 suggested the Science Museum might want to put them on display, they were rejected as a "curiosity" on a par with "a toothbrush once used by Napoleon" which the museum also held.

It had not always been the case. In 1970, when Mr Nixon handed over the samples of moon rock collected by Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, museums around the country had vied for the honour of showing them.

But when they finally returned to Downing Street after a tour of provincial museums, the papers suggest officials were at a loss to know what to do with them.

Mr Wilson's successor, Edward Heath, was unable to find an "aesthetically-suitable" spot within the historic surrounds of No 10 to put them on display.

The rock fragments were described as being "encapsulated in a clear plastic hemisphere about the size of a golf ball and mounted on a not-very-attractive wooden plinth along with a silk Union Jack" which the astronauts had taken with them to the moon.

"It would certainly not enhance the appearance of any of the No 10 state rooms," one official noted.

As the glamour of the moon shots faded, it seems that they quietly consigned to the back of a cupboard, until 1985 when they were unearthed as a result of a chance conversation between Margaret Thatcher and the director of the Science Museum Dame Margaret Weston.

However when No 10 suggested that the museum might like to take the opportunity put them on public display again, Dame Margaret was "not over-enthusiastic" about the idea.

"As a curiosity (ranking with a toothbrush once used by Napoleon which they have at the museum) they would always be very willing to give it a home if we no longer wanted the exhibit at No 10, but more significant specimens of moon rock are apparently available from Nasa if required as part of a scientific display," a No 10 official reported.

Press Association

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