Moon Rock from Apollo 11 took memorable trip to Tennessee

John Thompson • Jul 19, 2019 at 10:23 PM

Nearly everyone who was over the age of 5 in 1969 feels a connection with Apollo 11.

For most, the strongest connection is with the landing of the Eagle on the surface of the moon and the excursions on the Sea of Tranquility by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. But for Bob Robinson, now public relations officer with the Tennessee College of Applied Technology of Elizabethton, the deepest connection was with the rocks  Armstrong and Aldrin brought back from the moon.

Robinson certainly felt a direction connection, and still does, because “I obtained the first public showing of the moon rock in Tennessee.”

The story of how and why Cleveland State Community College jumped ahead of other institutions and landed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration display is just another remarkable part of the Apollo 11 story.

Robinson was first thinking of ways to get some attention for the school’s brand-new campus, with six new buildings. He said he was working “to showcase Cleveland State Community College … and was looking at ways to attract students and families in the region to visit the campus. The idea of showcasing a moon rock collected by the Apollo 11 astronauts came to mind.”

Running with the idea, Robinson wrote NASA headquarters in Washington about the possibility of showing a moon rock. To his surprise he soon received a telephone call from NASA’s public relations office. asking him when would he like to have the moon rock display.

After finding out the rock would be available after October 1971, Robinson went to the college president, D.F. Adkisson, to find to what he would like to do and when he wanted to do it.

But when he approached Adkisson about a date for the the moon rock exhibit, the school’s leader was unconvinced.

“You will never get it,” Adkisson told Robinson. “The larger colleges already have that sewed up.”

Robinson responded “No sir, we have the moon rock reserved for Cleveland State.” Adkisson quickly decided to request the rock for the soonest possible date, October 1971, making it the first public showing of a moon rock in Tennessee.

Robinson said the college was responsible for security while the rock was in the college’s custody. The college was also responsible for transporting the rock to Tennessee from Washington and back again.

Robinson said he only had an annual transportation budget of about $500, so he relied on local industry to help, specifically Magic Chef, which manufactured kitchen stoves, ovens, microwaves and dishwashers.

Robinson said the president of the company agreed to loan him the corporate jet. He assured publicity for his showing of the moon rocks by offering seats on the plane to local newspaper reporters and broadcasters.

But there was still an unexpected mishap.

This was the early 1970s, a time of antiwar protests and violence. As Robinson and the reporters were flying to Washington, the FBI and other security agencies were responding to a bombing in the Senate barber shop. Their pilot told them the airport had been closed.

Finally, they got permission to land and a limo reserved by Magic Chef was waiting to take them to NASA and then the Capitol to meet with Sen. Bill Brock, who was from Chattanooga, close to the Cleveland campus.

After picking up the rock, stored in a blue box, they went to the Dirksen Senate Office Building with Robinson holding the box so he could show it to the senator.

But security was still tight from the barber shop bombing, and Capitol Police and Secret Service officers were at the door, checking everyone seeking entrance into Capitol Hill Buildings.

Robinson said he was asked by the police what he was carrying inside of the box. Robinson answered truthfully that he had a moon rock inside; he said the officers looked at him like he was from the moon himself and demanded he open the box. Robinson told them NASA had instructed him not to publicly display the rock except at the authorized exhibitions. He said there were many unknown people around him and he was uncomfortable opening the box at that point.

Brock was sent for. Robinson said the lawmaker was then the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and he was holding a hearing about the bombing just inside the office building.

Brock was notified of the problem at the entrance and went outside and vouched for Robinson and his party. He then gave the reporters who had accompanied Robinson a tour of the site of the bombed barber shop, jumping ahead of the national press who had not yet been permitted to tour the destruction. In Brock’s secure chambers, Robinson opened the box so the senator could get a good look at the rock.

The rock was soon headed to Tennessee.

For the display at Cleveland State, Robinson said he was able to get an audio tape of the lunar landing of Apollo 11, which played continuously during the exhibit, helping to get the visitors in the mood. Robinson said there were souvenirs and a tabloid newspaper handed out that showed scenes of the landing and the astronauts, along with information on the courses being offered by Cleveland State.

Robinson said reservations from schools in a 10-county region were taken for tours of the exhibit.

The parking lot was full of school buses from throughout the region, with several thousand people viewing the rock, and NASA extended the block for the showing from three days to six days.

Robinson said Adkinsson told him the rock exhibit had also succeeded in getting out the word about the new campus at Cleveland State.