February 23, 2011

A Tale Of Lunar Larceny

Moon rocks, excavated from the Moon via six Apollo missions and three unmanned Soviet missions more than 30 years ago, are the subject of a far-reaching black market for the precious stones, which have been tracked down -- with some success -- by a former NASA investigator.

Joseph Gutheinz Jr., the former NASA investigator, has been tracking the lunar larceny for the past decade. In a March feature: "A Memoir: A Decade-Plus of Tracking Lunar Larceny," he recalls some of the most famous thefts of the Apollo lunar rocks. He also describes how he and his students have helped to solve some of the thefts and helped recover several missing rocks.

One of the more notable thefts Gutheinz helped uncover was one he told in the story of Operation Lunar Eclipse, which led to the recovery of the Honduras Apollo 17 Goodwill Moon Rock. It marked the first law enforcement recovery of an artifact brought back to the Earth by man.

Gutheinz said the rock was offered to him in 1998 for the sum of $5 million, when he was still an undercover senior special agent with NASA's Office of Inspector General.

He was awarded the NASA Exceptional Service Medal I for his involvement in that operation. He also has an autographed photo of NASA astronaut Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, who brought back the Goodwill Moon Rock.

The Honduras Apollo 17 Goodwill Moon Rock was returned to Honduras on September 22, 2003, said Gutheinz.

Gutheinz's students have had their own success as well. Since 2002, they have hunted down stolen or misplaced moon rocks all over the world as part of Gutheinz's Moon Rock Project at the University of Phoenix.

Gutheinz, who started tracking moon rocks in 1998, said he could not have imagined the impact these cases would have on his life for years to come.

These stories and many more can be found in the March issue of EARTH, now available digitally ( or in print on your local newsstands.