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When moon rocks were swag

March 15, 2012 | 11:28 am

Astronauteugenecernan_moon
From July 1969 to September 1972, American astronauts regularly traveled between the Earth and the moon. In those three years, a dozen men were able to climb out of the lunar module and set foot on the moon. And while it was initially astonishing -- humans had never gotten so far into space before -- something about their presence there became expected, routine. The moon wasn't all that exciting, really. The astronauts scooped up rocks and dirt. Some clowned around to fill the television time: Alan Shepard golfed.

By the time those manned moon missions were complete, the astronauts had gathered 842 pounds of lunar samples. Nearly a half-ton of rocks and dirt. Rocks and dirt from our boring old moon.

And one particular piece of rock, after it had given up all the laboratory secrets we'd hoped it might, was broken up and turned into presidential swag. Hey, we had hundreds of pounds of it -- why not give it away?

In 1973, the bits of moon rock were encased in lucite and distributed to every U.S. state and to the heads of state in each of the world's countries. Then President Nixon, who'd left his name on the moon rock gifts, resigned in shame, and that era of the space age receded.

The lucite relics on wooden plaques almost faded into obscurity, removed from leaders' halls, relegated to museum storerooms, and, as the story of one goes, landed on a literal ash heap.

Almost, but not quite. Thank Joseph Gutheinz, NASA investigator, now retired. His obsession, from earliest little tickle to daily duty, is outlined in latest original from The Atavist, "The Case of the Missing Moon Rocks" by Joe Kloc. Gutheinz started out trying to stop con men from claiming to have moon rocks -- he was very successful -- but that led to another quest, the quest for the rocks themselves.

I'm a sucker for a quest story and, apparently, true stories about astronauts and space. Including this one.

The Atavist's story makes clear, for many years, in many quarters, the moon rocks were tended about as carefully as a freebie book bag. That inattention, as people turned away from our moon missions, allowed the moon rocks to almost disappear. Gutheinz's sometimes unorthodox methods, which included cooperating with a vendor of space stuff, have helped make sure they'll be remembered.

It seems so obvious now -- now that only 12 humans have ever touched the moon's surface -- that rocks from there would be valuable. Imagine that: owning a piece of the moon.

NASA has given out some more moon rocks since those original chips distributed by President Nixon. The plaques are much better-looking.

Recently, one of the 1973 moon rocks was offered for sale for a whopping $5 million -- although, as "The Case of the Missing Moon Rocks" explains, that price is complicated. You might be able to get one for less. But if you start shopping around, expect to run into Joseph Gutheinz.

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-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Astronaut Eugene Cernan, the last man on the moon, 1972. Credit: NASA

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