NASA Missing Hundreds Of Moon Rocks
December 9, 2011

NASA Missing Hundreds Of Moon Rocks

An audit of NASA has turned up evidence that hundreds of moon rocks and other space matter are apparently missing, many of which have been loaned out by the space agency.

NASA Inspector General Paul Martin on Thursday issued a report stating that more than 500 pieces of moon rocks, meteorites, and other debris from space were either stolen or have been missing since 1970. That includes 218 moon samples that were stolen and later returned and about two dozen moon rocks and pieces of moon dust reported stolen last year.

Many of the moon rocks missing have been loaned to researchers or may have been misplaced by the agency. The bulk of the moon material in question comes from the Apollo moon landings between 1969 and 1972. Astronauts returned 842 pounds of lunar rock and soil to Earth, and the space agency has loaned much of that to more than 350 researchers around the world.

The agency currently lists 517 moon rock samples as missing or stolen.

Martin´s audit, however, suggests much more is missing, based on inquiries to a sample of 59 scholars who were loaned moon rocks, comet dust and meteorites. The audit found that 1 in 5 could not locate all of their samples.

NASA, which has lent more than 26,000 samples, needs to keep better track of what is sent to researchers and museums, the report said. The lack of sufficient controls “increases the risk that these unique resources may be lost,” the report said.

This is not a new problem. It has been ongoing since the 70s.

One case, which triggered Martin´s decision to launch an audit, was of Delaware´s Mount Cuba observatory, which had space matter and lunar rocks loaned to it back in 1978. The loan expired in 2008, but no material had been returned to NASA. When the observatory was contacted by the space agency in 2010, officials there told NASA the manager had died and they were not able to find the sample.

But the observatory later recanted its statement and University of Delaware physics professor Harry Shipman, a trustee of the observatory, said the manager did in fact die, but had returned the samples before his death sometime during the mid 1990s. “He returned it to NASA. We don't know what NASA did with it,” he said.

NASA told auditors that the observatory returned meteorites, but not the lunar sample. The gaps in these facts leave a pretty big hole for NASA´s auditors to fill.

“These samples constitute a rare and limited resource and serve an important role for research and education,” Martin said in his audit report. “Specifically, we found that NASA records were inaccurate, and that researchers could not account for all samples loaned to them and held samples for extended periods without performing research or returning the samples to NASA.”

Martin said NASA needs a better tracking system and should have annual inventory to stop unnecessary sample loss.

“NASA concurred with our recommendations and promised to take corrective action,” the report noted.

As of March 2011, NASA had more than 26,000 samples out on loan, totaling 140,000 lunar samples, 18,000 meteorite samples and 5,000 solar wind, comet and cosmic dust samples.

NASA spokesman Michael Cabbage said the agency will continue to lend out material to scientists and for educational display but will adopt the specific recommendations the inspector general made to improve its tracking. “NASA does not consider these national treasure assets to be at high risk,” said Cabbage.

“NASA is committed to the protection of our nation´s space-related artifacts, and sharing these treasures with outside researchers and the general public,” said NASA´s Dwayne Brown, in a statement.

Of interesting note: earlier this year, one lunar sample that had been written off as lost was actually discovered in a box of former president Bill Clinton´s files and memorabilia, stored in an Arkansas library.

“It´s a bit of a mystery solved," Bobby Roberts of Little Rock´s Central Arkansas Library System told CNN in September.


Image Caption: The most famous of the Moon rocks recovered, the Genesis Rock, returned from Apollo 15. Credit: NASA


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