Alaska Moon Rocks Reclaimed, Go On Display In Juneau Museum
December 7, 2012

Alaska Moon Rocks Reclaimed, Go On Display In Juneau Museum

Peter Suciu for — Your Universe Online

Some of the rarest rocks on Earth will be once again on display at the Alaska State Museum in Juneau. A collection of moon rocks, which were collected on the Apollo 11 mission in 1969 and presented to Alaska´s Governor Keith Miller by President Richard M. Nixon, vanished following a museum fire in 1973.

On Thursday state and federal officials displayed the returned relics, which included tiny moon rocks encased in a golf-ball-sized acrylic glass ball and mounted on a walnut plaque above a small Alaska flag that traveled to the moon aboard Apollo 11.

NASA had created identical plaques to present to every state, and this included the walnut base and angled face-plate along with the dense, black moon rock fragments. During the Apollo 11 mission, which was the first time that humans landed on the moon, American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin gathered around 48.5 pounds of these alien rocks.

Following the mission, a plaque was presented to each state with lunar samples and its accompanying flag that was flown on Apollo 11. President Nixon presented the plaque for Alaska to then Govenor Miller in 1969. It was on display at the Alaska Transportation Museum until 1973 when an arsonist reportedly torched the building. Following the blaze witnesses reported seeing the plaque intact, but it disappeared shortly after.

Alaska Dispatch reported that the whereabouts of the moon rocks were unknown until 2010, when Coleman Anderson filed action against the State of Alaska in an attempt to be declared the owner of the moon rocks under the premise that the state had abandoned the property. Anderson had been a vessel captain and appeared in early episodes of the Discovery Channel´s “Deadliest Catch.”

So how exactly did Mr. Anderson come to such a premise? It actually goes back to the time of the fire, when Anderson was a foster child of a museum employee. According to the testimony of a museum official that employee took the artifacts home for safe-keeping during the clean-up and left them in a storage facility, but Anderson claimed he found the plaque in a pile of debris and thus rescued the rocks from the rubble.

“He claimed that after the fire he found the plaque in the rubble and debris at the museum site, and that he saved it from destruction,” Alaska Assistant Attorney General Neil Slotnick told Alaska Dispatch this past August.

When his foster parent left the state Anderson gained sole possession of the rocks, which he took with him when he moved out of state. Then 37 years later he filed suit against the state seeking ownership. While he sought clear title Anderson said he would be willing to sell them back to the state. However, state officials questioned Anderson´s account of how he obtained the rocks and launched a counter suit.

“We were eventually able to persuade the plaintiff that he should dismiss this case,” Slotnick, who compiled evidence in the lawsuit, told ABC News.

The state´s case was supported by those witness claims that the rocks survived the fire, but even if the state had abandoned the plaque it wouldn´t really have mattered.

Bob Banghart, chief curator of the Alaska State Museums, told Alaska Dispatch that the rocks really don´t belong to Alaska at all. The plaque and its contents are “actually the property of the US government,” while the state of Alaska is merely acting as steward of the lunar rocks.

"Many times I feel that plaintiffs are asking for the moon," Slotnick said. "This is the first time that that was literally true."

The rocks are now back on display at the museum, with plans to do some restoration work on the plaque, before being made available at showings throughout the state. Additionally a virtual display of the moon rocks will soon be made available on the Alaska State Museum´s website.