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Why don't we want our piece of the moon?


Zoe Christodoulides

CYPRUS is taking the backseat in reclaiming a gift of a rather otherworldly nature. For when it comes to the island's very own piece of the moon, the government has made little effort to get back its lunar morsel now that it has turned up decades after it first vanished.

Back in the 1970s, nearly 270 moon rocks were scooped up by US astronauts and then given to countries around the world and their representative governments by the Nixon administration out of an act of goodwill. Each rock, encased in acrylic, was proudly mounted on a plaque with the intended recipient's flag.

But little did they know just how much controversy these little fragments of rock would provoke. Over time, many of them mysteriously disappeared, some stolen in hope of big bucks on the black market; others were lost in the aftermath of political turmoil.

Many of them have been returned to their rightful countries over the course of time, with much media attention now having been placed on the return of the Nicaragua Apollo 11 moon rock which was found in the hands of a Las Vegas casino mogul.

Amidst all this, the Cyprus Apollo 17 Goodwill rock still remains far away across the Atlantic despite being in NASA's possession since May 2010.

The rock (from the 1972 Apollo 17 mission) was once believed to have gone missing from the presidential palace when it was damaged in the tumultuous events of 1974. In 2007 however it came to light that the Goodwill Moon rock was never actually given to the Cyprus government at all, but was instead kept at the US Embassy in Nicosia during the events of 1974 until it could be officially handed over to the government.

When Roger Davies, the US ambassador to Cyprus, was assassinated during the 1974 turmoil, American diplomatic personnel were quickly evacuated and the moon rock mysteriously disappeared.

Until just a few years ago, no one officially knew where it was. In 2009 it then emerged that the moon rock of Cyprus, complete with the accompanying plaque and flag, had been put up for sale on the black market. The would-be seller was a US diplomat's relative who took the rock back to America following the Cyprus invasion. When the US law enforcement got involved, the seller went underground and the moon rock disappeared yet again.

The story was brought to light by ex-NASA senior special agent and current professor at the University of Arizona, Joe Gutheinz, after a search was conducted along with a group of his students to track down where exactly the Cyprus Goodwill Moon rock could have disappeared to. A number of internet articles followed, and Gutheinz- known worldwide as a moon rock aficionado- contacted the local press here in Cyprus.

He had spent much time investigating lost moon rocks, and this was by far the most interesting case for him. "I just can't believe this story," he told the Cyprus Mail at the time. "I would never have guessed that an American had kept the rock. In every other country it has been someone in the government of the recipient country that took the rock. I have not once come across a story like this in all the years I've been looking for moon rocks."

His determination to find the mystery seller eventually paid off. "I was contacted by a friend at CollectSpace who advised me that in 2003 an American diplomat's kid (now an adult) had made inquiries about selling the Cyprus Apollo 17 Goodwill Moon rock," he recalls. Notifications to NASA and inquiries followed. Eventually, the day came in May 2010 when an unnamed person handed the rock over to NASA.

But two years later, Cyprus has still not received its goodwill rock, which has been held at NASA's Johnson Space Center since May 2010.

"It needs to be returned to its rightful owner. These moon rocks should be seen by the children of your nation in a museum," Gutheinz insisted this week.

"Several inquiries have been made to NASA by the media about the Cyprus Goodwill Moon Rock, and each time NASA has advised that it has no present intention to return the property of Cyprus," Gutheinz says.

Even more surprising to Gutheinz is that Cyprus does not seem to care.

After NASA received the missing moon rock, Gutheinz sent a picture of it and its plaque to the Cyprus Embassy in Washington. "We received information that the Cyprus moon rock was given safely back to NASA last year," confirms a spokesperson from the Cypriot Embassy in Washington. "We then explained the case to the foreign ministry and sent them all the information. There hasn't been any response yet and we haven't been notified about any further investigations or demands made to have the rock returned to the island."

The foreign ministry here in Cyprus on the other hand, claims to not really be clued up on the matter while no effort has been made so far with regard to getting the property back. "I have heard something about this, but we don't know much about it," says the head of the American Department with the ministry. "We have asked for the Cyprus Embassy in Washington to send us the information again and we will look into it."

Gutheinz finds it bewildering. "If Cyprus had American property our politicians would speak up about it. Silence in this case isn't golden, it's weak."

Missing moon rocks

-American astronauts collected about 842 pounds of lunar rock in six missions between Apollo 11 in 1969 and Apollo 17 in 1972. Soviet cosmonauts collected about 300 grams of rock, or about two-thirds of a pound. Apollo 11 samples were rice-sized chips, amounting to 0.05 grams. Apollo 17 samples were single stones, weighing 1.14 grams.

The rock - virtually worthless in terms of mineral value - can fetch millions on the black market, while many have attempted to sell fakes.

There are 159 moon rocks that the Nixon and Ford Administrations gave to nations that are now missing. In addition there are also 18 Apollo 11, and 6 Apollo 17 moon rocks given to the various American states that are now missing. The Alaskan Apollo 11 moon rock is presently at the centre of a civil lawsuit.

Many of the moon rocks that are accounted for in various countries have been locked away in storage for decades. The location of the rocks has been tracked by researchers and hobbyists because of their rarity and the difficulty of obtaining more. In Malta, a Goodwill Moon Rock was stolen in May 2004 from the unguarded Museum of Natural History in Medina. But the thief left the Maltese flag and plaque that authenticated the sample as real. The sample hasn't been recovered.

The Apollo 11 rock presented to Ireland was accidentally discarded in a landfill known as the Dunsink Landfill after a fire consumed the room it was housed in at the National Museum of Ireland in October 1977. The Apollo 17 Goodwill Rock however remains within the National Museum of Ireland.

Cyprus Goodwill Moon Rock

Joe Guthheinz

Copyright Cyprus Mail 2012

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Publication:Cyprus Mail (Cyprus)
Geographic Code:4EXCY
Date:Jun 3, 2012
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