Monday, July 26, 2010

Missing Moon Rocks

Harrison Schmitt, geologist & astronaut, on Apollo 17
On July 10, the St. Louis Post Dispatch ran a story about Missouri’s missing moon rock. In 1972, Richard Nixon gave each state and many countries a “Goodwill Moon Rock.” The gifts were handled very casually to say the least. Someone absconded with Honduras’ rock and tried to sell it to an undercover agent. He is the one that got caught. At least one of the moon rocks wound up in a former governor’s garage. Of 270 “lunar samples, ” gifted to US states and foreign governments, more than 100 are unaccounted for. For a thorough discussion of the missing moon rocks, check collectSpace. Missouri’s governor at the time of the gift was Kit Bond. Missouri is among 15 states that cannot account for the rocks. Bond says he doesn’t remember receiving the Apollo 17 rock. We Missourians have no doubt that he’s being truthful when he says he doesn’t remember it.

At the time, no one seemed to understand the value of a chunk of the moon. Most people expected that the Apollo missions would continue, and Mars would be next. There would be plenty of rocks to come. Other issues occupied the front page in the 70s, like Watergate, Star Wars, the death of Elvis, the end of Gunsmoke, and the beginning of The Love Boat. Like the space race itself, souvenirs of a trip to the moon dropped off the public’s radar.

No one cared, that is, till a Professor Gutheinz at the University of Phoenix decided to give his students a bit of investigation practice. He assigned “The Moon Rock Project,” whose purpose it is to track down all of the goodwill moon rocks. Thirty-eight years after the last eagle landed on the moon, it turns out these lunar knick-knacks are worth 5 million. Dollars! I mentioned the story to my mom, who casually replied, “Oh, your dad had a moon rock.”

Stunned silence. “Oh, yeah, Herb gave him one.” If anybody in St. Louis could get his hands on a moon rock, it would have been Herb (not his real name). “He got it from someone at McDonald’s.” That would be McDonnell-Douglas, now Boeing. “It was just pebbles. Your dad put the pebbles in an envelope and wrote something on it.”

We searched every closet and old dresser drawer we could find, but like Missouri’s goodwill tchotchke, it had vanished. I wondered what my friend Randy Korotev thought about the story. Randy is on the research faculty at Washington University and studies moon rocks for a living. He also writes the top-ranked website on lunar meteorites—meaning the moon rocks that came to earth without the help of Buzz Aldrin or Tom Hanks.

Anne: Hey Randy! Thanks for spending some time with us at GwB! Did you know anything about the “Goodwill” rocks, covered in Lucite and mounted on a plaque, before this story hit the news?

Randy: I knew that many heads of state had received them, but I didn’t know that US state governors had received them until a student involved in this project e-mailed me a year ago to ask if I knew where the one that had been given to the Missouri governor was.

Anne: Were any of the rocks you studied from museums, or did they all come directly from NASA?

Randy: I get all my samples directly from NASA’s astromaterials curation office at the Johnson Space Center. That’s the only place that one can legally acquire an Apollo sample for study.

There are lots of Apollo rocks on public display. If NASA approves the request, the curation office turns samples over to the public affairs office and those samples become unavailable for scientific study. Nearly all of the samples on display in museums and all of the give-away samples were basalts (solidified lava). Some of these samples weigh several kilograms. All of the science you need to get from a basalt you can get from 10-20 grams. So, small pieces of these samples are the ones that are used for displays and politicians. I expect all the governors received a little sample of one rock.

Anne: Does it seem likely to you that moon pebbles are languishing in forgotten desk drawers around town?

Randy: If 50 governors got samples, then yes. But, not among the scientists. Every two years I have to do a complete inventory of the samples I have. So, if you have Apollo samples, you’re reminded at least every two years.

Anne: If I were to find an envelope of “moon pebbles,” would it be possible to look at them and determine if they were from the lunar surface or a parking lot surface? Or would it take extensive testing?

Randy: The short answer is that it would take a moderately expensive test to prove it one way or the other. (I’d do it for you for $200.)

The story you tell is familiar to me. I’ve been sent samples by people who have stories like, “My late father was given this moon rock by an Air Force general in 1972,” or, “My uncle was given these sample by a NASA security guard who knew Buzz Aldrin.” The kids of the late elders now want to know if the family legend is true. I’ve been contacted 10-12 times, and the lunar sample curator says that they get calls like that all the time. 

Sometimes I can take one look and say, “This isn’t a Moon sample.” I can’t say that a rock is from the Moon rock “just by looking.” None of the ones I’ve analyzed, however, has been from the Moon. I can tell that with 100% confidence on the basis of our analytical results (chemical composition). If you gave me a real Apollo sample, I could tell you which of the 6 landing sites it came from better than 9 out of 10 times. By the way, if it was my opinion that it really was an Apollo sample, I’d inform the NASA lunar sample curator. Then, you’d probably get a visit by guys who don’t smile and wear suits with white shirts.

Anne: Missouri’s missing rock is from Apollo 17. What their anything unique about Apollo 17?

Randy: It was the last mission and the variety of rock types was probably greatest. The basalts are distinct from those of the other sites. Some of the non-basalts are unique. Those samples aren’t given away.

Anne: The American public lost interest in manned space missions. We certainly undervalued the moon rocks and space exploration in general. Do you think that the public has ever appreciated the full importance of space travel?

Randy: Some people have. Some people think it never happened. I know a lot of students who are fascinated by the recent missions to Mars and asteroids. I’ve seen an upturn in interest in students in the past ten years. The Chinese, Japanese, and Indians are taking space exploration very seriously. 
Looking for moon rocks.
Anne: If you think you've found a moon rock, lunar sample, or meteorite, Randy says read this and this. Thanks Randy!


  1. Great story- unfortunately, I'm pretty sure I DON'T have one.

  2. Just as well, Mike! It saves you from a visit from unsmiling NASA folks. Thanks for visiting!