During Neil Armstrong’s three hours of moon-walking, he found time to do a spot of work for the University of Bristol.
Fifty years ago today (July 20), Apollo 11 touched down on the lunar surface, allowing US astronauts to take those historic steps early the following morning.
TV viewers across the world watched in awe as Armstrong successfully collected rock samples – but few were as excited as people here in Bristol, for they knew a special gift would be coming their way.
Indeed, three months later, the city’s residents had the privilege of seeing the moon dust up close.
The opportunity came after a team of scientists at Bristol University won the chance to study the material – with the quiet hope that signs of life would be detected.
“I can’t imagine what it must have felt like to crack open that vial, knowing the last time someone handled this it was on the surface of the moon,” said cosmochemist Tim Gregory, 26, who completed his PhD at Bristol University before moving to the British Geological Survey in Nottingham.
In October 1969, Geoffrey Eglinton, who set up the university’s organic geochemistry unit (OGU), guided staff including Colin Pillinger, of Kingswood, James Maxwell and John Hayes as they examined the samples.
Although they did not see any signs of life, they were vindicated in their prediction that they would find methane.
That discovery was crucial in helping us to improve our understanding of the solar system, according to the OGU’s current chief Rich Pancost, who says he is in awe of the scientists’ work.
“As you can imagine, the pressure was high and the obligation for analytical rigour was nearly unprecedented,” Professor Pancost said.
“Not only did they achieve this but, in doing so, they developed new approaches or pushed existing approaches to their analytical limit.”
Dr Gregory is equally full of admiration for Professor Eglinton’s team – and views their task as among the most significant imaginable.
“It was not just a scientific privilege to look at those rocks – it was also a dream for humanity to look at those rocks,” he said.
Outside the university’s walls, Bristol residents took great interest in the 105 grams of treasure which their city had been loaned.
They jumped at the chance to see it for themselves when it was put on public display, forming queues along Park Street stretching hundreds of yards.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say it inspired new scientists, seeing the moon rocks come to Bristol,” said Dr Gregory.
Yet despite the near-universal initial curiosity, not everyone ended up being impressed when they came face-to-face with the samples.
“They were queueing around the block to view the rocks on display, but apparently some people were quite underwhelmed,” said Dr Gregory. “I’m not sure what they were expecting to see.”
(Image: Johnny Green/PA Wire)
Nevertheless, the general mood in the air seems to have been one of excitement – as captured by the Evening Post, which produced special moon landing supplements bearing headlines including ‘Now they have a moon nap!’ and ‘Moon – your guide to man’s touchdown’.
Front-page slots were dedicated to Bristol’s special role in the post-mission routine, some articles featuring interviews with Dr Hayes, then aged 29.
Dr Hayes, an American who had previously worked with NASA, told the Evening Post why he decided to cross the Atlantic.
“The reason I came to Bristol was because you have the best geochemistry laboratory in the world,” he said. “I think Bristol is unquestionably ahead.”
Fifty years on, the university has retained its strength in that area, but the methods pioneered by Dr Eglinton are now used for terrestrial purposes.
Prof Pancost said: “We now use them to study the history of Earth’s climate, the origins of agriculture, the impact of farming on soil and many other questions related to the Earth’s environment and life.”
Prof Eglinton, Prof Hayes and Prof Pillinger are now deceased.
The latter, who attended Kingswood Grammar, is also known for leading the Beagle 2 mission, which saw a spacecraft land on Mars.