The Apollo program, for all its inspirational accomplishments and technical achievements, was a servant of two masters. The first was a pure scientific enterprise, to learn as much as possible about Earth's only natural satellite and to push the boundaries of human spaceflight. The second was political, with Apollo acting as the most compelling (and perhaps most garish) symbol of American technical prowess, industry, courage, and will.
This dichotomy is embodied by the Goodwill Moon Rocks program.
A case can be made that no field of study benefitted more from Apollo than the science of geology. Of the approximately 430 kilograms of known lunar materials on Earth, Apollo astronauts obtained roughly 382 kg. The vast majority of those samples have been used to further our understanding of planetary formation, geochemistry, and the physical history of our solar system. However, not all of those moon rocks were recovered in the name of science.
Specific lunar samples from Apollo 11 and Apollo 17 were earmarked as -- how shall we say -- political souvenirs. Precisely 270 prepared lunar rock samples were distributed as part of the Goodwill Moon Rocks program, most of them going to the 50 U.S. states and a number of foreign countries as tokens of appreciation for support of Apollo, NASA, and U.S. interests. The recipients were charged with keeping custody of perhaps the rarest and most valuable artifacts ever distributed for diplomatic purposes.
Four decades later, no one can account for a significant number of those 270 nigh-irreplaceable moon rocks.
HOW MANY APOLLO GOODWILL MOON ROCKS HAVE GONE MISSING?
Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger -- amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can also follow him on his personal blog.