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State fails to account for priceless moon rocks

October 24, 2009
By WILL HOOVER, The Honolulu Advertiser

As if the governor's office doesn't have enough headaches with teacher furlough lawsuits, budget shortfalls and plummeting tourist revenues, there's this:

A former NASA senior special agent says the state cannot account for five priceless moon rocks that were given as gifts to the people of Hawaii in celebration of mankind's age-old quest to travel to and safely return from the moon.

The missing moon rocks are encased within a pair of halved Lucite globes that are each affixed to a wooden plaque, along with a state flag, said Joseph Gutheinz of Houston. Each half-ball is slightly smaller than a tennis ball. One half-ball contains four tiny moon rocks, and the other contains one somewhat larger moon rock, he said.

Both plaques were displayed in the governor's office in July 1979, according to news reports from the time, and since then one or both had been kept on periodic display in the public reception room on the fifth floor of the state Capitol.

Now, said Gutheinz, no one seems to know where they've gone.

The governor's office did not respond to inquiries about where Hawaii's moon rock plaques might be.

But Hawaii isn't alone. Gutheinz said that only about three dozen of the 368 gift moon rocks given to countries and states can now be accounted for.

"What we have found is that many of these treasures are missing," he said.

The tracking of moon rocks is a passion for Gutheinz. Throughout the 1990s, he was a senior special agent for NASA's Office of Inspector General, and the lead agent of Operation Lunar Eclipse - a sting operation aimed at snaring con artists who were hawking fake moon rocks at astronomical prices.

In the process of that operation, his team uncovered, seized and returned a genuine moon rock that had been stolen from Honduras. The Honduras moon rock, encased in Lucite, was one of the gifts given to the leaders of 134 foreign counties during the Nixon administration.

The Honduras moon rock was essentially the same as 102 Lucite-encased moon rocks from the Apollo 11 and Apollo 17 moon missions - the first and last of America's manned lunar landing missions - that were given as gifts to the governors of each U.S. state and Puerto Rico during the same period.

Gutheinz said the Lucite-encased gift moon rocks came with a small state or country flag that had actually gone to the moon on the first and final Apollo moon landing missions.

Hawaii has a special place in the moon mission saga, being the greeting place for Apollo 11 moon walkers Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and command module pilot Michael Collins following the trio's historic first lunar landing mission on July 24, 1969. Three days later, the space heroes were plucked from the Pacific Ocean, placed in quarantine aboard the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, and taken to Pearl Harbor.

They carried a small bag of moon rocks that Armstrong snatched up the instant after he made his "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" statement, as a way to ensure that at least some rocks would be brought back if the mission was suddenly aborted. Thus, it was in Hawaii that the astronauts peeked into that bag and became the first Earthbound human beings to gaze on naked moon rocks.

John Hirasaki, a 28-year-old Apollo project engineer and recovery team member who spent 21 days in quarantine with Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, peeked as well. On the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11, he recalled the awe-inspiring thrill of laying eyes on matter that had been retrieved from another celestial orb.

"It's absolutely fascinating," he recalled of the experience.

The astronauts brought back a total of 47 pounds of lunar material, the first installment of a total 842 pounds of moon rocks that would eventually be retrieved by all six manned Apollo moon landing missions.

In early April 1970, when the Bishop Museum exhibited a 1.5-ounce moon rock from the Apollo 11 mission, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration put the value of the moon rocks at $55 million an ounce - making single moon rocks more valuable than 10-carat diamonds.

Gutheinz placed the monetary value of each of Hawaii's two much smaller Lucite-encased moon rock gifts at $5 million - which he said was the asking price for the stolen Honduras moon rock, and the going black-market rate for moon rocks.

Gutheinz, 54, now teaches investigative techniques online for the University of Phoenix, and has assigned his graduate students to track down moon rocks around the world.

Gutheinz, who said he has personally tried to track down Hawaii's unaccounted-for gift moon rocks, hopes the two gift plaques have only been misplaced and will turn up.

"I have tried the governor's office," said Gutheinz, who was told to contact the Hawaii State Archives. After contacting that office, he said, he received an e-mail Wednesday from archives branch chief Luella Kurkjian that said, "I regret to inform you that the Hawaii State Archives not only does not have the moon rocks, but we have never had them! Also, I have no idea where they are."

Gutheinz said he has also contacted the Bishop Museum and the University of Hawaii.

"But I am running into brick walls trying to find these two formal gifts," Gutheinz said. "It is important to note that Hawaii has received other moon rocks to study. But the formal Apollo 11 gift, and Apollo 17 Good Will Moon Rock, are unique.

"I am surprised that they are apparently nowhere to be found, as I am surprised that they were not on exhibit for the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11."

 
 

 

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