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.


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Of the 270 Apollo Goodwill Moon Rocks doled out by the U.S. government in the 1970s, 180 are missing. That means two out of every three Goodwill Moon Rocks are lost or stolen.

So how did it get this bad?

For the cynical among us, it would be enough to simply sneer and declare don’t give priceless scientific artifacts to politicians. That’s a bit simplistic, if only because the moon rocks aren’t priceless. They have a very specific — and very high — black market collector’s value. So much so that the U.S. Customs Service, the U.S. Inspector General, and the U.S. Post Office teamed up in 1998 to run a sting operation to nail a peddler of black market moon rocks.

The so-called Operation Lunar Eclipse recovered the Goodwill Moon Rock belonging to Honduras. The seller wanted no less than $5 million for the item, which apparently was not an outrageous sum for a certified Goodwill Moon Rock. One of the lead agents in that sting, Joseph Gutheinz, is now a criminal justice professor who runs a student project to track down the remainder of the missing moon rocks.

Of course, not all (or likely even most) of the missing moon rocks were stolen for profit. Many of them were simply lost due to outright negligence or lack of oversight. Arkansas, Hawaii, Missouri, and Oregon misplaced their moon rocks in desk drawers for decades. Former Colorado governor John Vanderhoof simply took his state’s moon rock home with him when he left office (though he returned it later). Ireland accidentally threw its moon rock in a landfill when cleaning up damage from a museum fire and then dug it up when they realized their mistake.

Oh, and before we indict all non-scientists as unworthy of possessing so precious an artifact as a moon rock, let us not forget that both the Johnson Space Center and the National Air and Space Museum have also had non-Goodwill Moon Rocks stolen — the former by a pair of science interns who walked away with a 600-pound safe. (They were later caught, and the samples recovered.)

That’s not just some staggeringly shoddy scientific oversight; it’s an infuriatingly irreparable instance of Geek Trivia.

The quibble of the week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week’s Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best quibble from our assembled masses and discuss it in a future edition of Geek Trivia.

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This week’s quibble comes from the Feb. 23, 2012 edition of Geek Trivia, which asked in what year is the current Gregorian leap year system expected to ‘fail?’

Member AnsuGisalas threw in some bonus trivia, holding that the ‘original’ leap day wasn’t Feb. 29:

From Wikipedia: “The leap day was introduced as part of the Julian reform. The day following the Terminalia (February 23) was doubled, forming the “bis sextum” literally ‘double sixth’, since February 24 was ‘the sixth day before the Kalends of March’ using Roman inclusive counting (March 1 was the ‘first day’). Although exceptions exist, the first day of the bis sextum (February 24) was usually regarded as the intercalated or “bissextile” day since the third century. February 29 came to be regarded as the leap day when the Roman system of numbering days was replaced by sequential numbering in the late Middle Ages.”

Grraaagh, but what a piece of geek trivia, eh? I look forward to saying at parties that “He was born on a leap day, Feb 24 1896…” just to see the WTH faces.

A word of advice, Ansu: Don’t be that guy. I’ve been that guy. He doesn’t get invited back to parties.

In any case, thanks for the bonus leap day minutia, and keep those quibbles coming!