Seventy-nine moon rocks, including some presented to several governors in the United States which had gone missing over the years, have been recovered since 2002, thanks to the endeavours of former Nasa investigator Joseph Gutheinz and his team. However, Malta’s Goodwill Moon Rock, which was donated to Malta by former US President Richard Nixon in the 70s’, is still missing after being stolen from the Natural History Museum in Mdina on 18 May, 2004.
Moon rock samples were collected by the dozen American astronauts who walked on the lunar surface between 1969 and 1972. US states, territories, the United Nations and foreign governments received them as gifts. The samples, which also were loaned to museums and given to scientists for research, range from dust particles to tiny pebbles.
Most famously, Gutheinz was responsible for the 1998 ‘Operation Lunar Eclipse’ sting at Nasa and intercepted a $5 million sale of a moon rock that President Richard Nixon gave to the government of Honduras after the last Apollo mission.
Joseph Gutheinz has not given up hope of recovering Malta’s moon rock for which he once offered $10,000. For him, the fact that the self-authenticating plaque was not stolen indicates that it was the work of an amateur thief, who did not have to contend with heavy security measures to reach his goal. The only person present was the ticket seller by the door, which is even more amazing considering that other basic security measures such as surveillance cameras were absent. At the time, calls by Gutheinz for the Maltese government to grant a 48-hour amnesty to return the rock, went unheeded.
Though this may appear as a hefty sum for a small rock weighing a few grams, a search on eBay reveals that a particular seller nicknamed apollo11goodwillmoonrock is asking a much higher price for a fraction of that with bids starting at $267,000. He claims to be in possession of 0.03 grams of moon rock dust. In his latest venture, the former Nasa investigator was in Buffalo, Texas, to meet this particular seller whose real identity is Rafael Navarro – a former toy manufacturer from Colombia who contends his piece of the moon is from the more than 48 pounds (22 kilograms) of material collected in 1969 by Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the first manned lunar landing mission.
“Bottom line is, from a common sense perspective, this is a train wreck waiting to happen for him and he’s inviting it,” Gutheinz said. “He’s opening the jail cell door and walking through it. I wish him well but he’s really defying everybody by doing this.”
Navarro claims that he got the rock from a maid, now elderly and in failing health, who worked for a Venezuelan diplomat who told people it was a moon rock.
“No way Nasa can say the rock is not,” he said, showing letters from Nasa experts who told him a few years ago it wasn’t from the moon.
Gutheinz said Navarro reminded him of others who claim to possess a moon rock.
“But the difference is they hide it,” Gutheinz said. “They squirrel it away and they don’t want anybody to know they have it.”
Navarro, 67, said he didn’t fear possible fallout from illegally possessing what could be federal government property or risking fraud charges for selling something as a moon rock when it may not be.
“Nasa can’t prove they ever had this moon rock,” he said. That part may be true. The fact that something purporting to be a moon rock even shows up on eBay illustrates the greater problem of no one keeping proper track of the gifted and loaned rocks and the fate of many being unknown.
“From time to time, I get a call from somebody that has a moon rock and his father or her father died and was a scientist,” Gutheinz said. “And they ask, ‘What do I do with it?’ I tell them, ‘Give it back to Nasa.’ That’s a real problem.”
In the days of the Apollo space programme, the idea of not returning to the moon again and again wasn’t a concern. So it was believed that more and more rock samples would come, too. But it’s been 40 years since astronaut-geologist Harrison Schmitt and Apollo 17 mission commander Gene Cernan in 1972 became the last men to walk on the moon. The total amount of collected lunar materials has amounted to 842 pounds (382 kilograms), including 2,196 individual rocks, soil and core samples. Those subsequently have been split into about 140,000 subsamples, according to Nasa.
Of the 270 moon rocks given to nations around the world as gifts, Gutheinz said 160 are unaccounted for, stolen or lost. Another 18 moon rocks from Apollo 11 and six from Apollo 17, gifted to US states, also are unaccounted for or missing.
The latest moon rock recovered was tracked by Sandy Shelton, one of Gutheinz’s former students. The West Virginia rock was in possession of Robert Conner a retired dentist, who had acquired the rock following the death of his brother who was the former business partner of former West Virginia Governor Arch A. Moore, Jr. Upon coming across a news report about the missing rock, Robert Conner decided to return the rock.
“I am very pleased that I was able to give back to West Virginia what was rightfully theirs, and to know that the young generation will have a piece of history to look at from the moon,” said Shelton, who lives in Minneapolis.
Other cases include the one recovered among Bill Clinton’s gubernatorial items which yielded the Arkansas moon rock and the Alaska rock which is now part of a court battle. The Missouri rock was found among boxes of things when former Gov. Kit Bond retired from the US Senate.
The late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s US moon rock remains lost. There’s also evidence a grandson of the late Spanish dictator Francisco Franco has tried to sell his grandfather’s US gift in Switzerland.