The first sculpture on the Moon — and the first feather
While Apollo 14’s Alan Shepard thought it would be fun to hit a golf ball or two while on the Moon, the Apollo 15 crew had more serious things in mind. Scott and Irwin placed on the lunar surface a small figurine called Fallen Astronaut and a placard with the names of deceased astronauts. For audiences back on Earth, Scott dropped a falcon feather and hammer. They landed on the surface at the same time, proving that Galileo was right about the acceleration of objects under gravity.
Did they look back?
Irwin wrote that as a child in Pittsburgh he “felt even then the pull of the Moon.” But did the astronauts of Apollo 15 ever look at the Moon through telescopes after their return?
Before his death, Worden told me, “I had one of those ball telescopes, Edmunds…” I interjected, “Astroscan.” He exclaimed, “Yes! I loaned it to a guy and never got it back.” After, he didn’t bother to get a new scope.
Scott remembers looking at the Moon from Arizona’s Kitt Peak Observatory — all the astronauts did this — and says he had a little telescope in London when he lived along the Thames. Now, he has “too much going on” and doesn’t have a telescope anymore. (Scott is the only surviving member of the crew.)
But Worden, Scott and Irwin all looked back in their respective memoirs: Falling to Earth (co-written with Francis French), Two Sides of the Moon (co-written with Alexei Leonov), and To Rule the Night (co-written with William Emerson).
Windows into time
The samples brought back from Apollo 15 look back as well — to the origin of the solar system and the mysteries of the Moon’s formation, features, and characteristics.
According to Tim Swindle, the outgoing director of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona, “Based on fragments in the samples of soil from Apollo 11, scientist John Wood had proposed that the Moon was molten at one point and then a mineral called anorthosite, which is both light in color and light in density, floated to the top to make the original crust, which we still see as the light-colored highlands today. Scott and Irwin saw a bit of light-colored material exposed on a rock and, as they examined it in more detail, they realized that it was almost pure anorthosite. That rock, later numbered 15415, became known as Genesis rock, and although it is not the oldest sample returned from the Moon, it’s an excellent example of the early crust.”
This first sample of the primordial highlands helped confirm the magma ocean hypothesis proposed by Wood and others.
But that’s not all. “The diversity of the samples that were collected by the Apollo 15 astronauts was astounding,” says Ryan Zeigler, the Apollo Sample Curator at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Not only did they nab the famous Genesis rock but, among other samples, Scott and Irwin collected “the first sample of pyroclastic glass from fire-fountain eruptions and the first deep drill core from the Moon,” which was nearly 8 feet (2.4 m) long.
Apollo 15 points us to the future as well, says Kate Burgess, a geologist with the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. She explains that “the training of the astronauts that allowed them, as former test pilots, to recognize the importance of [the] Genesis rock while on the Moon” demonstrated the importance of geological field training, which “is probably among the most lasting legacies, as I know it is influencing the training of the current Artemis class.”
While Apollo 15 may be 50 years in the past, its achievements and consequences continue to resonate.