September 14, 2009

Missing Moon Rocks Lead To Investigation

Last month, officials with the Netherlands' national museum reported that it had been holding a piece of petrified wood, which had been mistaken for a piece of rubble from the surface of the moon.

The announcement sparked an investigation, being led by the Associated Press, to recover the whereabouts of about 270 moon rocks.

The rocks were collected by US astronauts and distributed to other countries as international gifts from the Nixon administration. But since then, many of the rare stones have gone off the radar.

NASA still holds the larger share of the moon rock collection. It has kept the majority of 842 lbs, while smaller and mid-sized rocks are given away to other countries and museums.

The Rijksmuseum last month found that its supposed moon rock was simply a piece of petrified wood, which could have originated from Arizona. The announcement became cause for concern among other countries that are in possession of moon rocks.

"There is no doubt in my mind that many moon rocks are lost or stolen and now sitting in private collections," Joseph Gutheinz, a University of Arizona instructor and former U.S. government investigator, told the AP.

The AP cited a Web site called CollectSpace.com, which tracks the whereabouts of moon rocks from Apollo 17. According to the Web site, only 25 of 135 rocks have been located, which is likely to be the result of bad record keeping rather than massive theft.

The AP also said its investigators were able to track down 10 other moon rocks in Switzerland, Belgium, Italy, Barbados, France, Poland, Norway, Costa Rica, Egypt and Nepal. Investigators relied on transactions between the State Department and U.S. embassies in 1973.

"NASA turned over the samples to the State Department to distribute," said Jennifer Ross-Nazzal, a NASA historian.

"We don't have any records about when and to whom the rocks were given."

"The Office of the Historian does not keep records of what became of the moon rocks, and to my knowledge, there is no one entity that does so," State Department historian Tiffany Hamelin told the AP in an e-mail statement.

Gutheinz said he worked for the NASA Office of the Inspector General in a 1998 investigation to locate fake rocks when someone offered to sell him a real lunar stone for $5 million.

The situation turned into a legal battle, referred to as "United States vs. One Lucite Ball Containing Lunar Material (One Moon Rock) and One Ten Inch By Fourteen Inch Wooden Plaque."


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