On Monday, the Minnesota National Guard found a few pieces of the Moon in a state building in St. Paul. Unlike the pieces of space people have lying around their houses, these found fragments aren’t lunar material that hitched a ride to Earth with a meteorite. These pieces arrived with the Apollo 11 astronauts in July 1969 and were subsequently presented to the state by NASA. Then they went missing, along with a state flag that was also flown on the mission.
In the 1970s, NASA presented samples from the first and last landings – Apollo 11 and Apollo 17 – encased in plastic to world and state leaders. But that’s where the agency’s records end. It’s perhaps unsurprising that lunar samples would be high on the “things to steal and sell on the black market for hundreds of thousands of dollars” list, especially samples from the first manned landing. Illegal to sell in the United States, samples find their way on into the black market.
Illinois’ Moon rock and flag, shown as an example of how the samples were presented to each state.
The six men that walked on the Moon between 1969 and 1972 brought back 842 pounds rocks and loose soil samples from the Moon. Just 48.5 pounds of that material – mainly basalt rocks (solidified from molten lava) and breccias (composed of fragments of older rocks) – came from Apollo 11’s lunar sojourn.
You don’t need to be a geologist to appreciate the importance of those samples, but they are a rare and valuable research tool. And Moon rocks aren’t the only space materials in NASA’s collection. In addition to some 140,000 lunar samples, NASA has 18,000 meteorite samples and about 5,000 solar wind, comet, and cosmic dust samples. The agency regularly loans these materials to museums, researchers, educators, and institutions worldwide. In March 2011, over 26,000 samples were out of the agency’s control on loan to scientists, researchers, and educators.
They go missing more often than you’d think. Experts estimate that at least half of those gifted samples have been lost, stolen, or destroyed. Of all the pieces of space floating around the plane, 516 samples including 18 Moon rocks have been lost or stolen in the last 40 years. And yes, there are actual Moon rock hunters out there. Like Joseph Gutheinz, a former NASA investigator who leads an effort to find missing moon rocks.
According to Gutheinz, finding Minnesota’s missing rocks leaves just 11 states whose samples are unaccounted for. Other lost samples have been recovered, like Arkansas’s. Last September, Arkansas recovered the Apollo 17 sample the state had received from NASA. An archivist found it in among former President Bill Clinton’s papers in a box marked “Arkansas flag plaque.” The tiny flag was the one sent into space on the mission, and the rock likely fell off the plaque into the box. Colorado’s missing sample was recovered when former Governor John Vanderhoof confessed to having the rock in his personal collection. He eventually agreed to give it back to the state.
It’s a little surprising that so many lunar samples have gone missing over the years. You’d think those gifts from NASA would be guarded fairly closely. But the (slight) upside is that more missing samples means more people can aspire to be Moon rock hunters.