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Moon rocks went missing around the world.

Byline: Lucy Millett

BETWEEN 1973 and 1974, America presented 135 nations of the world with pea-sized fragments of rock gathered from the moon on the 1972 Apollo 17 mission. The rocks were presented to the heads of state of 135 countries by President Nixon and later President Ford.

During the first moon landing in 1969 and the five subsequent missions, 382kg of lunar rock was collected and immediately designated the property of the United States. The majority of it is now safely ensconced in NASA's vaults.

A quarter of a kilogram, hewn from Mother Rock 70017 in 1972, was split into 1.1g pieces, each encased in a transparent Lucite ball. These fragments were sent to 135 nations for diplomatic purposes.

However, a number of these rocks are now missing, and a very small number of nations, including Cyprus, had never heard of them at all.

Joseph Gutheinz, retired NASA Special Agent and now a college professor, has made a project of hunting down the missing lunar treasure.

In 1998 he went undercover in a fascinating sting operation entitled Operation Lunar Eclipse, which eventually tracked down the Honduras Goodwill Moon Rock, stolen from a museum and smuggled into America.

He found it on sale for $5 million, and eventually returned it to Honduras, although not before a court battle entitled "United States vs. One Lucite Ball Containing Lunar Material (One Moon Rock) and One Ten-Inch-by-Fourteen-Inch Wooden Plaque."

Gutheinz sends his graduate students to try to hunt down the missing Goodwill Moon Rocks from around the world. Last autumn, a graduate student tried to track down the Cyprus moon rock but, according to Gutheinz, came away "very frustrated, saying 'I just could not find that moon rock'".

A recent Associated Press investigation was able to locate an additional ten Apollo 17 rocks -- in Switzerland, Belgium, Italy, Barbados, France, Poland, Norway, Costa Rica, Egypt and Nepal.

Moon rock is invaluable, its worth increased by the fact that no one has returned to moon since the 1972 Apollo 17 landing.

The Goodwill Rocks are the property of the nations to which they were given and those in NASA's vaults remain the property of NASA and are classified as national treasures. That makes private ownership of moon rock tantamount to theft.

Malta's Apollo 17 rock was stolen in 2004 in an incredible piece of amateur theft. According to Gutheinz the thief simply walked into the museum, picked up the rock and pocketed it.

In Spain, the newspaper El Mundo this summer reported that the Apollo 17 rock given to the country's former dictator, Francisco Franco, is missing. The paper quoted his grandson as saying that his mother had lost the rock. He denied that the rock had been sold but claimed it was the family's personal possession to sell if they so wished.

Romania's Apollo 17 rock disappeared after the fall and execution of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989.

According to Gutheinz and other reports, Pakistan's Apollo 17 rock is missing and Afghanistan's sat in Kabul's national museum until it was ransacked in 1996. Five were handed to African dictators long since dead or deposed and it is believed that the one given to Nicaragua was sold by the dictatorship for $10 million.

The Netherlands, Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand are among the few countries where the location the gift rocks is known. Britain's is on display at the Natural History Museum. One of the Dutch ones, kept in the Rijksmuseum, was recently discovered to be a piece of petrified wood, possibly from Arizona. The other Dutch rocks, all genuine, are still safely in a natural history museum.

In 2004, Gutheinz told The Times, "I've located about two dozen worldwide; the rest are unaccounted for. That doesn't mean that they are gone, but my hunch is that around half are lost, stolen or in a position where they could easily be stolen. They are worth whatever a collector is prepared to pay for them.

"Everyone who knows anything about Moon rocks knows that NASA takes it really, really seriously. So when somebody forks out a fortune for a rock, they won't take it to NASA because they know it will be confiscated. So they stick it in a bank vault and go to look at it occasionally. It's the perfect con, because the seller knows the buyer's not going to get it tested.

"When you bring back fragments of another world they should be treasured, respected and safeguarded. The people of that country should be able to go and look at it and dream."

LM

Copyright Cyprus Mail 2009

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Publication:Cyprus Mail (Cyprus)
Date:Sep 17, 2009
Words:773
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