Ark. Archivist Finds Missing Moon Rock

Last week, an archivist in Arkansas was sifting though boxes of papers from President Bill Clinton's gubernatorial years when he came across a surprise — a piece of the moon. The moon rock had been missing for about 30 years, and it was just one of about 180 moon rocks that are currently at-large. Melissa Block talks with retired senior special agent for NASA Joseph Gutheinz about the other missing rocks.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

P: a piece of the moon. It was a moon rock that had been presented to the state in the 1970s and went missing soon after. The theory is the rock was mistakenly packed away when then Governor Clinton was voted out of office in 1980. And while the mystery of the Arkansas moon rock has been solved, there's still more than 180 other moon rocks that are unaccounted for.

Well, Joseph Gutheinz has been trying to track them down. He's a retired senior special agent for NASA. He teaches a forensic investigation course through University of Phoenix where he and his students try to find the moon rocks. Joseph Gutheinz, welcome to the program.

JOSEPH GUTHEINZ: Glad to be here, ma'am.

BLOCK: This Arkansas rock was one of a whole lot of rocks that were brought back from the last manned mission to the moon, Apollo 17, back in 1972. They were called goodwill moon rocks. Who got them?

GUTHEINZ: Yeah. Well, it was Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt, the only geologist to go to the moon. And when he saw this multicolored moon rock on the moon, he picked it up and he suggested at that time that it should be cut to little slivers and shared with the world as a goodwill gesture. And in fact, President Nixon followed through on Harrison Schmitt's suggestion, and he gave 135 moon rocks to the nations of the world and 50 to the states. And this was actually the second time he had done this. He did the same thing with respect to the Apollo 11 moon rock.

BLOCK: Mm-hmm. And how big are they?

GUTHEINZ: It's only 1.142 grams. The way I try to describe it, it's about the size of a very small pebble. And, in fact, it's encased in a Lucite ball, which amplifies its size and gives an artificial impression that it's a bigger rock than it is.

BLOCK: Uh-huh. So the Arkansas rock just ended up in a box somewhere, it sounds like. How typical is that, that people just sort of don't know what's happened to the state's moon rocks?

GUTHEINZ: Unfortunately, it's very typical. Again, of the 270 moon rocks that President Nixon gave to the nations of the world, my students have found that 160 are missing, have been stolen or have been destroyed. And of the 50 Apollo 11 moon rocks given to the states, 18 are unaccounted for. And of the 50 Apollo 17 moon rocks given to the state, eight are unaccounted for.

BLOCK: How do you explain that about half of the hundreds of moon rocks that were given to nations and states are missing? We just don't know where they are.

GUTHEINZ: It's really a two-pronged dancer. NASA did a bad job of tracking the moon rocks we gave away, and the recipient countries and states did a bad job of putting them into an inventory control system.

BLOCK: Mm-hmm. So some are - just ended up in a box somewhere, like they did in Arkansas.

GUTHEINZ: In Guyana and other places, yes, absolutely.

BLOCK: Why is this so important to you?

GUTHEINZ: I'm a retired NASA special agent. I love NASA. I love the work that NASA has done over the years. I believe that moon rocks that were recovered by man and brought back to Earth belong to the people, not to an individual. And so to see how the states and the nations have treated the moon rocks is rather shocking.

BLOCK: Well, Joseph Gutheinz, good to talk to you. Thanks again.

GUTHEINZ: Thank you, ma'am.

BLOCK: Joseph Gutheinz is an attorney and a retired senior special agent for NASA.

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