Lost Moon Rocks Spark a Mystery
Some of the rocks collected on mankind's greatest adventure, the six human expeditions to the moon, are lost.
President Richard Nixon gave the priceless lunar samples to all 50 states and more than 100 countries after the first and last missions to the moon, to demonstrate the shared nature of the U.S. achievement. His goal: Give people worldwide a chance to see a little piece of our moon.
Four decades later, many of the samples can't be found. Some were taken by government leaders after they left office or perhaps given away to colleagues, friends or relatives. Some turned up on the black market. Some were relegated to museum storage rooms. Others might be on display in obscure museums or government buildings, but we can't know for sure because nobody kept track.
Whether because of malfeasance, misplacement or memory lapses, the bottom line is dozens of the rarest artifacts are now missing.
A special agent turned college professor, a private space memorabilia enthusiast and an armada of graduate students are trying to change that. They're playing detective, working to unlock a mystery of history, running down every missing rock and lobbying to get them back on public display.
"A lot of people just don't understand the importance of what they have. There's a lack of knowledge, accountability and concern," said Army Sgt. Richard Griffis, who is a graduate student studying administrative security at the University of Phoenix.
Griffis went searching for moon rocks at the behest of one of his professors, a former NASA inspector general special agent who helped in a sting operation that recovered Honduras' moon sample from a Miami collector who tried to sell it for $5 million.
"This is a way to get them involved in a real world investigation, but one that isn't going to get them shot," said Joseph Gutheinz, a University of Phoenix professor who retired from NASA's internal investigative arm in 2000 to teach. "I thought why not have them hunt down these moon rocks. I had no idea so many are missing."
So far, so good, in Florida. Griffis, the student tracking the rocks given to the Sunshine State, found them in Tallahassee. A few interviews led Griffis to find the rocks had been displayed in a reception area at the governor's office until 1993, when they were given to the State Museum of Florida History. That was a good sign. Most credible museums keep exhaustive records of the artifacts in their care.
"We knew right where they were. We didn't have a problem finding them," said Bruce Graetz, a senior museum curator.
Florida, like other states and countries, got two samples from the lunar surface. One is from Apollo 11, the first moon landing, and contains flecks of lunar material encased in a small lucite sphere mounted on a wooden plaque bearing a miniature state flag. The other is a slightly bigger specimen, a chunk of rock from the last moon mission, Apollo 17, encased in the same manner on a very similar wooden stand.
The good news: The Florida moon rock plaques were secure. The bad news: They're hidden away in storage. They remain there, though the museum plans to put them on display for a space-related exhibit from July 23 to Oct. 10. After that, they go back into secure storage, out of public view.
The museum doesn't have enough space, the curator said, to display the plaques all the time.
That's not uncommon. Many of the rocks are in storage at museums because of a lack of space to display the plaques or a lack of security to protect them from thieves.
That's less troubling than the missing, or even stolen, rocks. Particularly hard to find have been the rocks given to foreign countries. Every nation has different laws governing who really owns gifts given by another nation. If the item is given to the head of state of one country, it might be considered his personal property once he leaves office. In another country, the law might dictate such gifts are the property of the government or its museums.
One country's rock was in the hands of the son of an ambassador. And Honduras' gifted moon rock was recovered in a high profile sting operation in 2003, which got national media attention and cast a spotlight on the missing rocks. The quest to find the others relies heavily on media attention jogging people's memory. Each mention in the news spawns new leads, the rock-hunters say.
Lost, stolen, or hidden in storage, the unofficial moon rock recovery team's goal remains the same. Get more of the samples back in public view. NASA astronauts collected more than 800 pounds of rocks and other lunar materials and a relatively small fraction is on display.
"What we consider national treasures here, other people consider personal treasures," Gutheinz said. "It's very disturbing to me that two-bit dictators have stolen these moon rocks and converted them to their own uses. They belong to the people of the world. They belong to the kids of the world. That is something that is fundamentally wrong."
That's what Nixon and NASA wanted from the start.
"That was the spirit of the gift. It wasn't a gift to the leaders or dignitaries. It was a gift to the people," said Robert Pearlman, a Houston memorabilia expert who edits a website called collectspace.com and is helping the hunt by maintaining an online tracking system listing the status and location of each of the Apollo 11 and Apollo 17 gifts. "The original intent was that they'd be able to be shared with the people."