ST. PAUL — Lily Aggerholm, future astrophysicist, peered into a microscope and saw the moon.

Well — tiny pieces of it, anyway.

The 9-year-old in the NASA shirt is on a mission this summer to attend various local events and activities related to the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing: On Tuesday, July 16, Lily and her mom were at the Bell Museum — located on the edge of the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus — for the first public viewing of genuine lunar rock and soil samples on loan from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

“It’s so cool,” said Lily of the lunar sampler. “It’s from the moon but it’s at the Earth.”

The samples will be on view during select times through July 28.

The public viewings began Tuesday to coincide with the half-century anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11. It’s part of the Bell Museum’s yearlong celebration, “Year of Apollo: The Moon & Beyond,” which continues on Saturday with a day of space-themed activities to mark the official 50th anniversary date of the Apollo moon landing.

Apollo 11 was one of six missions that put a dozen Americans on the moon between 1969 and 1972 — with space for 842 pounds of lunar rocks, core samples, pebbles, sand and dust to catch a ride back to Earth. What Bell visitors can see from that collection is a 6-inch lunar sample disk that contains lunar rock and lunar soil encapsulated in clear Lucite. These samples, the Bell says, provide a glimpse into ancient lava flows, soil from sites across the moon and volcanic ash from a lunar eruption 3.5 billion years ago.

A Lucite disc containing six samples of different rocks and soils collected by NASA astronauts from the Moon is displayed at the Bell Museum in Falcon Heights on Tuesday, July 16, 2019. John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press
A Lucite disc containing six samples of different rocks and soils collected by NASA astronauts from the Moon is displayed at the Bell Museum in Falcon Heights on Tuesday, July 16, 2019. John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press

“It is so rare,” said Sally Brummel, Bell planetarium manager, “to have a piece of the moon so close.”

Not all the kids on Tuesday knew much about NASA’s history of space travel, but kids like Lily were soaking it all in as they peered at the lunar samples, looked at photos from that era as well as general NASA-related gear, including a hand-held radio that was used for the astronauts to communicate with Mission Control back in 2007.

Some of the discoveries seemed … familiar.

“They looked just like rocks that are on the Earth,” said one kid.

It’s not just the rocks that felt close to home.

“DustBusters,” said museum spokeswoman Andria Waclawski, “were born through the space program.”

The compact, battery-powered technology was just perfect for vacuuming up lunar soil — as well as, back on Earth, Goldfish crackers from the minivan floor

Some of Tuesday’s visitors also stopped by the Bell’s planetarium to watch “One Giant Leap,” the museum’s original production that uses archival recordings to help people feel as if they are standing on the surface of the moon with Neil Armstrong. The most moving part, though, might be when the audience is asked to share their own, personal memories of witnessing that time in history.

“One person got choked up,” Brummel said. “It was such a great memory.”

Susan Wolf, who was visiting from Florida, was one of those who remember what a big moment it was — so she couldn’t help but smile at the small artifacts of that momentous time.

“They’re awfully tiny,” she said.

The turnout wasn’t, though.

Seven-year-old Josiah Carrillo, of St. Paul, holds lunar rocks and soil encased in a Lucite disk at the Bell Museum in Falcon Heights on Tuesday, July 16, 2019. In honor of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 crew launch on July 16, the Bell Museum began public viewings of the samples, collected from the Moon by NASA astronauts and on loan from NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press
Seven-year-old Josiah Carrillo, of St. Paul, holds lunar rocks and soil encased in a Lucite disk at the Bell Museum in Falcon Heights on Tuesday, July 16, 2019. In honor of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 crew launch on July 16, the Bell Museum began public viewings of the samples, collected from the Moon by NASA astronauts and on loan from NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press

“I see so many generations here,” Brummel said. “The grandparents who were alive then, and the youngsters who are just getting inspired in space and astronomy and might be the generation that goes to Mars.”

Lily, who also wants to be an astronaut — she is currently a fourth grader at Glacier Hills Elementary School of Arts and Science in Eagan — would definitely be on board for a trip beyond the moon.

“She’s very curious,” said Anna Brenna, Lily’s mother. “She wants to understand things. And no area has as many unknowns as space.”

Lily nodded.

“I have so many questions,” she said before heading off to the planetarium where, hopefully, she could get some of her questions answered right away.