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Operation Moon Rock: The Hunt for Lost Lunar Samples

Panorama of the moon taken during mission Apollo 17. | Wikimedia Commons/NASA - Lunar and Planetary Institute

Relive the excitement of man’s first steps on the moon and the long journey it took to get there with 20 new hours of out of this world programming on KCET's “Summer of Space"  Watch out for “American Experience: Chasing the Moon” and a KCET-exclusive first look at "Blue Sky Metropolis," four one-hour episodes that examine Southern California’s role in the history of aviation and aerospace. 

From July 16 through July 24, 1969, all Earthlings were on their home planet, except Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, who were rocketing to and from the moon.  A safe lunar landing was their primary objective, but after that first small step for man, Armstrong was to immediately collect some moon rocks and soil. In case the mission had to be aborted, there would still be samples to examine on Earth. 

 Armstrong training for Apollo 11. | Flickr/NASA/Creative Commons
Astronaut Neil A. Armstrong, wearing an Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU), participates in lunar surface simulation training on April 18, 1969, in Building 9, Manned Spacecraft Center (now Johnson Space Center). In the months immediately before the Apollo 11 mission, the crew and the ground support teams had an intense schedule of training and simulation. Here, Armstrong practices scooping up a lunar sample. | Flickr/NASA/Creative Commons

The Apollo 11 dirt was the first of the 842 pounds of lunar surface gathered between 1969 and 1972 by Apollos 11, 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17. NASA sent a geologist, lunar module pilot Harrison Schmitt, to oversee the last collection from more sites further afield. All Apollo lunar surface samples were secured at NASA facilities, some eventually going out as special gifts.

In 1970, President Richard Nixon gave Apollo 11 lunar samples to 135 friendly countries and to every U.S. state and territory. Small particles were embedded in Lucite, each secured to a wooden plaque with the recipient’s name and a small flag that had been aboard Apollo 11. In 1973, Apollo 17 rocks were similarly prepared for President Gerald Ford to give. His Goodwill Rocks were individual rocks, larger than the dirt-like Apollo 11 samples. 

A moon rock and Norwegian flag flown to the moon aboard Apollo 17. | Jaknudsen/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)
A moon rock and Norwegian flag flown to the moon aboard Apollo 17. | Jaknudsen/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The presentation rocks went on display in museums, libraries, scientific institutions and government offices. Within 30 years though, as if the moon had lost its glow, public interest in moon rocks waned. By 2002, 159 of the rocks were unaccounted for. Many of them vanished because of faulty record-keeping, but some disappeared due to political intrigue or eluded notice in private collections and the black market. One, remarkably, went to a landfill. Although unofficially upset at the casual handling of the samples, NASA could not look for items that didn’t belong to the agency anymore.

1973 was a bad year for moon rocks. That year, the first one known to go astray was in Honduras, where it went from the president, to the general who overthrew him, and then to a military aide. In 1994, the rock was offered for sale at $1 million. A special agent for NASA posed as a buyer and negotiated a new price of $50,000, with a refrigerated truck and $10,000 as down payment. After two years, the agent-buyer and seller met at a U.S. airport Denny’s, where the rock was handed over for $5,000.  

In Cyprus, an uprising from 1973 to '74 resulted in the assassination of American Ambassador Rodger P. Davies and the closing of the embassy. The child of an evacuated diplomat rescued the country’s Goodwill Rock. Its whereabouts were unknown until 2009, when the Associated Press started to help track down lost lunar samples. The person who had saved the moon rock as a child read an AP article about the search and arranged through a lawyer to return it to NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C.   

When Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, were executed on Christmas Day 1989 for genocide, the country’s Goodwill Rock went to his estate, which sold it. When the AP ran the story, Romania denied having had samples from Apollo 11 and said they had only received the Apollo 17 plaque. Joseph Gutheinz, a senior special agent with the NASA Office of Inspector General, found National Archives documents that proved Romania’s receipt of both sets of moon rocks, but only the Apollo 17 rock was recovered. 

Reimagine the space race and upend many conventional myths on “Chasing the Moon,” a film by Robert Stone.
"Chasing the Moon" Official Trailer

After many years as a sometimes-undercover investigative special agent for NASA, Gutheinz retired to become a lawyer and college instructor. In 2002, he began Operation Moon Rock, a private worldwide mission to locate as many missing lunar samples as possible. Over the years, he has tasked some 1,000 of his students and volunteer friends and family with the hunt. In 2009, the AP started writing about the search for the moon rocks, prompting some recoveries:

  • Spain, 2007: An Apollo 17 rock was donated by Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, a military aide to General Francisco Franco. It is on display at Madrid’s Naval Museum.
  • Colorado, 2010: A U.S. Senator and former governor said he found an Apollo 17 rock in storage.
  • Arkansas, 2011: An Apollo 17 sample was found in Bill Clinton’s personal archives, although Clinton was not governor when Arkansas received the rocks.
  • West Virginia, 2010: An Apollo 17 rock was found with the brother of a lawyer who had been the governor’s law partner. It was reported by the man’s family.
  • Alaska: A TV personality found an Apollo 11 rock among the ruins of a fire at The Alaska Transportation Museum. In 2013, the courts ordered its return to NASA, despite the man’s attempts to sue NASA for the high price of protecting the pebbles while in his illegal possession. 
  • The Netherlands ended up with fakes.

The newspaper’s role was significant in helping to recover lunar samples. In September 1998, Gutheinz used an alias to place a bogus ad in USA Today that was looking for moon rocks or dust to buy. A potential seller offered an authentic, but unidentified, Central American moon rock plaque for $5 million. Gutheinz agreed to meet the seller at a bank vault in Miami, to show the money and then exchange it for the artifact. When government agencies would not, American billionaire H. Ross Perot fronted the monies that lured the seller to the bank. After the seller accepted the cash, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents arrested him. 

Moon Rocks Wanted ad in USA Today. | Courtesy of Joseph Gutheinz
Moon Rocks Wanted ad in USA Today. | Courtesy of Joseph Gutheinz

That same year, the FBI arrested two brothers selling rocks that they claimed had been given to their father by John Glenn after his Apollo 12 mission. The brothers didn’t realize that  Glenn was a Mercury, not an Apollo, astronaut, and had never visited the moon.

Sometimes, the only thing necessary to find something is to be aware that it’s lost. California, Hawaii, Louisiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oregon and Utah conducted successful searches after calls from Gutheinz and his team. Most of these untracked treasures were found in obscure storage areas in government buildings.

Moon rocks have also been returned via happenstance. In 1973, the Nicaraguan plaque changed mercenary hands several times and ended up in a trade for goods to a missionary in Costa Rica. The missionary sold it to a Las Vegas casino owner, whose lawyer found it when acting as his client’s executor in 2009. The lawyer came across the sample in a safe deposit box but did not know what it was and only sent it to NASA because it referred to the moon mission.

Astronaut Harrison Schmitt collects lunar rake samples during Apollo 17. | PICRYL/NASA/Public Domain Dedication (CC0)
Astronaut Harrison Schmitt collects lunar rake samples during Apollo 17. | PICRYL/NASA/Public Domain Dedication (CC0)

A number of rocks seem permanently gone, lost or stolen, despite repercussions or rewards. In 2002, 25-year old NASA intern Thad Roberts and two other young interns at Johnson Space Center illegally removed a locked safe holding $30 million worth of lunar samples. The FBI investigated, and Roberts was sent to prison for six years. 

Other stolen samples remain in the void. Delaware’s state moon rocks were lifted from their displays in broad daylight in 1976, as were Malta’s, which were removed from a museum in 2004. A reward for information about them remains unclaimed.

Ireland’s Apollo 11 stones went figuratively up in smoke after a somewhat suspicious fire at their home at Dublin’s Dunsink Observatory. Reports say that the moon rocks were inadvertently hauled off with the rubble, and ended up in a nearby landfill that now attracts fortune hunters. 

Canada’s Goodwill Rock was found by Jaymie Matthews, the teen who received it as  Canada’s youth representative at the Apollo 17 launch. He gave it to a national museum, which later told him it had been stolen during a cross-country tour in 1978. As a curious adult, Matthews did an internet search for the Goodwill Rock and found that it was in a huge warehouse with millions of other pieces. The tour and the theft had been a story to cover the fact that the museum had misplaced it. Matthews’ follow-up efforts saw the Goodwill Rock eventually removed from storage and displayed at the Canada Science and Technology Museum.

Joseph Gutheinz with duplicate Honduran moon rocks. | Courtesy of J. Gutheinz
Joseph Gutheinz with duplicate Honduran moon rocks. | Courtesy of J. Gutheinz

In the United States, only the moon rocks from New York and Delaware have not been found. The work of Gutheinz and his team, along with the AP, is unparalleled in securing these national treasures. Their goal is to have all known moon rocks on public display as part of Apollo 11’s 50thanniversary celebrations. Many state governments are sharing their moon treasures and welcoming the public to special events. 

Top Image: Panorama of the moon taken during mission Apollo 17. | Wikimedia Commons/NASA - Lunar and Planetary Institute/Public Domain Dedication (CC0)

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