Of the 842 pounds of moon rocks that the numerous Apollo missions brought home to Earth, all are kept in NASA vaults. All, that is, except a couple hundred “Goodwill Moon Rocks” each weighing about one and half grams, tiny pebbles that were mounted on elaborate plaques and stands and provided as gifts to foreign heads of states — and to only one American private citizen: Walter Cronkite, the TV journalist who did more than anyone to narrate America’s adventures in space in the 1960s.
In fact, one of the very few things that Americans are not allowed to own under any circumstances, is a moon rock collected by NASA missions. (Technically, as a matter of law, NASA just loaned the rock to Cronkite.) Yet con men routinely attempt to sell moon rocks to gullible buyers and many of the Goodwill rocks, freighted as they are with the U.S.-Russian space race adventure mystique, and sometimes carrying a price tag of up to $5 million each, have found their way out of the foreign presidential palaces where they were originally sent to more tawdry places.
Science writer Joe Kloc has chronicled this modern mystery in a new Kindle Single, in which he tracks the activities of NASA senior special agent Joseph Gutheinz, a man who has made it his life’s work to track down the missing moon rocks.
This short book is a story of space crime, where the bad guys are intent on picking NASA’s loosely guarded pockets by embezzling money budgeted for the Mir space station, by ghoulishly trafficking in artifacts scavenged from the 1986 Challenger disaster, and most of all by selling lunar rocks brought back to Earth by Apollo astronauts.
During 17 lunar missions between 1961 and 1972, the Apollo program landed six spacecraft on the moon. The twelve living Apollo astronauts are the only humans on our planet who have walked on a celestial body other than our own. They brought back nearly 900 pounds of lunar material and most of those rocks remain locked in NASA vaults. As a gesture of goodwill toward foreign leaders, and to promote world order and peace, President Nixon in 1973 had one particular moon rock, called Sample 70017. Cut into minute fragments and given on behalf of the American people to all fifty U.S. governors and 135 nations around the globe.
The “Goodwill Moon Rocks” each weigh in at an insignificant 1.5 grams (it would take nearly 230 of them to add up to just a single pound), but they’ve become a huge obsession of Joseph Gutheinz, who has become a modern-day Sherlock Holmes in his detective quest to recover those missing rocks, which over time have been lost, stolen, or simply “disappeared” in foreign coups and revolutions. When they do turn up again, it’s usually on the black market — and their tag is in the millions.
To help him in his odd quest, Gutheinz created a sting operation called “Operation Lunar Eclipse” to lure sellers out into the open. Posing as a wealthy collector, he was able to recover and return a missing rock to the Honduran government. A Florida fruit wholesaler had been offering to sell the rock for $5 million. In his Kindle Single, which contains material from the February 2012 issue of The Atavist, writer Joe Kloc follows Gutheinz in his bizarre mission while also heading out on his own on the trail of some of the other missing moon materials.
This story holds reader interest because it’s so weird and full of oddball characters, among them Jerry Whittredge, who when not claiming to be President William J. Clinton is busy telling his marks that he is an astronaut himself, richly embroidering stories of his personal space travels as he tries to sell fake autographs. If nothing else, this book will demonstrate to you once again that the world we live in is a very strange place indeed.
Author Joe Kloc is a former contributing editor at Seed magazine and researcher at Wired. His writing and illustrations have appeared in Mother Jones, Scientific American, and The Rumpus.