originally published June 25, 2014
I’d like to open today’s missive with a few kind words about President Richard M. Nixon. In an act of international fraternity and savvy diplomatic P.R., the Nixon administration celebrated the American victory in the Space Race by doling out gifts of free moon rocks to every state, every US territory, and a long list of nations. Ever since humankind first stretched its grumpy morning arms over its evolutionary head we have been fascinated by that giant glowing rock in the sky. Now Dick Nixon was dispersing little bits of it all over the world. It’s kind of sweet, really.
The rocks – four per gift, each about the size of a Nerds candy – were mounted in an acrylic bubble within a commemorative plaque that also featured that nation or state’s flag, which had been part of the Apollo 11 payload. So everyone was getting a print of their own flag which had been to space, as well as a few morsels of lunar gravel. The gift was repeated once more after Apollo 17 with a fresh batch of moon-crumbs.
NASA has always been meticulous about tracking the whereabouts of every lunar sample that has been packed in our cosmic carry-on and brought back home. But once these babies touched down into foreign palms, NASA no longer followed their progress, probably assuming that each would end up in some museum under armed surveillance and the snazziest of security. They couldn’t have been more wrong.
Out of 270 gifted rock-nugget plaques, roughly 180 have since gone missing. Nixon’s gesture of international goodwill clearly received a meh-level fanfare from the majority of its recipients. In 1998, NASA became sufficiently irked by the growing black market for lunar pebbles that they decided to team up with the US Postal Service for a sting operation. Joseph Gutheinz helmed the scheme for NASA, and along with postal Inspector Bob Cregger they plopped an ad into USA Today looking to buy up some moon rocks.
Gutheinz and Cregger were seeking to protect those space enthusiasts (often the elderly) who were ripe for easy duping by soulless deviants who would try to pass off some murky river rock as a hunk of the captured sky. The sting successfully flushed out the Apollo 17 Goodwill Moon Rock plaque that had been given to the Honduras, but had since drifted into private ownership. Billionaire Ross Perot put up the requested $5 million to retrieve the plaque, which was done so for the posterity of lunar samples – no charges were laid because the property had never been reported stolen by the Honduran government.
Joseph Gutheinz left NASA to take a teaching job at the University of Phoenix, but he brought with him this mystery of the pilfered lunar specks, and dropped it on the desks of his criminal justice grad students. The ‘Moon Rock Project’ was a huge success. Not only was it a masterful training ground for these kids to flex their international detective skills, but it actually worked. They hunted down a bunch of these things.
In dealing with the missing international rock-bits, the grad students faced an uphill climb. While a number of countries reported that they still had their lunar samples tacked to someone’s wall or filed away in someone’s junk drawer, the ones that were missing were not easy to track. Paperwork and immaculate record keeping – especially for something 25+ years in the past that was, let’s face it, a trinket of somewhat low importance in the grand scheme of life – was simply nonexistent. Some nations claimed they never even received their rocks. Others weren’t very concerned that their samples were lost. That Joseph Gutheinz didn’t just give up in exasperation is nothing short of commendable.
Cyprus was one such nation. While initially it was believed that both their samples were swiped or smashed during the civil disturbances of 1973-74, Gutheinz eventually traced the location of their Apollo 17 rock plaque to a law office in America. NASA took custody of the rock, but Gutheinz has lobbied to have the rock returned to Cyprus where it belongs. That these gestures of goodwill have been shrugged off and/or forgotten really irks Joseph Gutheinz. I mean, it’s the friggin’ moon. We’re not talking about a freebie set of Mickey Mouse ears here.
Malta’s Apollo 17 rock was swiped from a Maltese museum in 2004. Despite Gutheinz putting up $10,000 of his own money as a reward, it still has yet to resurface. Rebecca Lyford, one of Gutheinz’s students, has been hunting the Romanian Apollo 17 rock for years, having determined that it was sold off by Romanian dictator (and he really put the ‘dick’ in ‘dictator’, if you know what I mean) Nicolae Ceausescu. Their Apollo 11 rock is still tucked away at the National History Museum in Bucharest.
Sometimes it’s simply a matter of a state or country possessing too many storage warehouses like the one at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Hawaii’s archives office told Gutheinz that they did not have the moon rocks, nor did they ever receive them. This was their position for a few months until some government drone was perusing the inventory of one of their storage lots and uncovered both rock plaques. Whoops.
Ireland’s Apollo 11 rock had barely survived a fire at the Dunsink Observatory in 1977, and it’s believed it was tossed into a landfill. Even a country that’s supposed to have its shit together – and I’m looking at you, Canada – couldn’t keep track of these things. Our beloved Canadian moon rock from Apollo 11 is long gone, believed to have been stolen decades ago. Luckily we still have the other one.
The unfortunate truth is that most every moon rock you’ll ever see – unless you happen upon a properly-displayed Goodwill Rock or you’re gawking at a NASA-sanctioned exhibit – is a fake. I don’t know the total number of busts Joseph Gutheinz uncovered with his USA Today ruse, but I’d highly recommend against plunking down even a tiny fortune on an eBay moon rock purchase. Unless you are just looking to show off and really don’t care if it’s a fake, just keep your money. NASA knows where every little lunar dust-flake is stashed, apart from the ones it gave away in those two global gestures of kindness (or, on the part of the receiving parties, apathy) in the 1970’s.
The Netherlands Apollo 11 rock – the one that was prominently displayed as the real deal from Nixon’s generous act of giving – was recently revealed to be little more than a tiny hunk of petrified wood. I wish Joseph Gutheinz (or whomever might be carrying on his legacy) the best of luck in tracking down the rest of these things. Of the 180 plaques that have gone AWOL, his team has tracked down 79 of them. That’s almost a 50% success rate in hunting down artifacts that appear to have been tossed aside like kitschy souvenirs by many of their recipients.
Souvenirs. Seriously – it’s the fucking moon! What is wrong with these people? I just don’t get it.