Scientist-astronaut Harrison Schmitt

What’s Your Moon Rock?

Joe Biden, the 46th American president, like other presidents before him, has had the Oval Office decorated with items that inspired him and are meant to reflect to visitors what principles he stands for. One curious detail, however, made people sit up and take notice. Among the items residing on one of the bookshelves is a sealed glass-aluminum container filled with nitrogen that contains a small stone. Not just any stone, and not one from our planet, but one from the earth’s satellite, the moon.

Moon Rock – Source: NASA

This lunar sample 76015.143, weighing a full 332 grams, had been collected by astronauts on the last of the lunar missions, Apollo 17, during the third and final lunar walk on December 13, 1972. There is a label on the container that explains how the rock came back to Earth:

Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan and geologist and lunar module pilot Harrison Schmitt “chipped this sample from a large boulder at the base of the North Massif in the Taurus-Littrow Valley” of the Moon.

That same month, Joe Biden had won his first election as a 30-year-old U.S. senator for the state of Delaware, and would then be inaugurated in January 1973. Forty-eight years later, Biden was again sworn in, but this time as President of the United States. And he had deposited the request to receive a moon rock from NASA for the Oval Office. NASA complied with his request.

For Biden, this moon sample stands as a reminder to Americans of the ambition and achievements of previous generations. But he is not the first U.S. president to keep a moon rock in his office. Bill Clinton received one in July 1999 during the 30th anniversary celebration of the first moon landings. The Apollo 11 astronauts – Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins – presented Clinton with a moon rock they had collected, also in a sealed display case, during a visit to the Oval Office on the day of the anniversary. In a 2015 interview with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, Clinton said the moon rock was “the most valuable thing I had for the White House policy perspective.”

For the last two years of his presidency, Clinton told deGrasse Tyson, he kept the Apollo 11 Moon rock right at hand. “When we’d have Republicans and Democrats in [the Oval Office], or people on two sides of any issue, and they’d start really, really getting out of control, I’d say, ‘Wait, wait, wait—you see that Moon rock? It’s 3.6 billon years old. Now, we’re all just passing through here. And we don’t have very much time. So let’s just calm down and figure out what the right thing to do is.’

“And it worked every single time,” Clinton said. “They were looking at an object that existed at a time they could hardly imagine. And it just gave them that little bit of space in their mind and spirit to try to figure out, okay, let’s go at this one more time.”


So, if two American presidents can use a small but mighty piece of rock as a means of inspiration and collaboration among people with differing opinions because it reminds us how small we and our problems are and how big the world is, then we may ask: What is our “Moon rock”?

The role of the moon rock is that of an “impression amplifier“, an object that reinforces the impression and helps to convince people of ideas more quickly. Elon Musk knows how to put this to excellent use. He sometimes sets up a SpaceX rocket at a lecture in front of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., or brings the cyber truck onto the stage, which he then works on with a hammer and metal ball to show that no scratches or splinters fall off. Even when that goes wrong – as it did with the cybertruck – it doesn’t bother, because it generates a lot more coverage.

If we want to learn from Bill Clinton, Elon Musk, and Joe Biden, it’s how they purposefully use such objects of shared achievement to communicate ideas, provide inspiration, and overcome divergence. What’s your Moon rock?

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