After Hours

Geek Trivia: How many Apollo Goodwill Moon Rocks have gone missing?

Precisely 270 prepared lunar rock samples were distributed as part of the Goodwill Moon Rocks program. Four decades later, no one can account for a significant number of those rocks.

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.

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About Jay Garmon

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 a...

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