In Malta, a moon-rock caper
"I would not be surprised if half of those 135 moon rocks have been stolen, or lost, or are now in a position where they could be stolen."- Joseph Gutheinz, retired NASA investigator
Sam Spade unraveled the mystery of the Maltese Falcon. Now his nonfictional alter ego is snooping into a real treasure-gone-missing caper: the Maltese moon rock.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Only about the size of a pea, the dull-gray specimen was plucked from the lunar surface by Apollo astronauts, embedded in a clear acrylic ball, and given to Malta. Last month, the acrylic ball and rare rock inside it disappeared from its display in a Mdina museum.
Malta's lunar larceny fits a global trend, some experts say. In 1973, President Nixon gave nearly identical moon-rock fragments as "goodwill" gifts to 135 nations. Today nobody, including NASA, seems to know the exact whereabouts of most of those fingernail-sized samples.
They could be in a museum display or a dictator's desk drawer or, as in Canada, gathering dust in a museum storage room. And they're extremely valuable - potentially worth millions of dollars each.
And the Malta theft has reignited interest in moon rocks, observers say, as has the coming 35th anniversary of the first moon landing on July 20 - along with a sizzling market for space collectibles overall.
"I would not be surprised if half of those 135 moon rocks have been stolen, or lost, or are now in a position where they could be stolen," says Joseph Gutheinz, a former investigator for NASA's Office of Inspector General. "I've been contacting museums around the world, and I'm not having responses I would have expected. There's no real sense that any but a few of these moon rocks can be accounted for."
From con men to strongmen, college students to collectors, many have sought to buy, sell, or steal a piece of the moon. Mr. Gutheinz, who retired in 2000 from NASA,has been involved in investigating several moon-rock capers - and knows details about even more.
In 2002, three NASA interns stole a 600-pound safe with reportedly about 3.5 ounces of moon rocks inside, valued at tens of millions of dollars. The college students tried to hawk the rocks over the Internet, but were reported to authorities. All were tried and convicted, says Gutheinz, who was not on that case.
But Gutheinz did investigate the case of another goodwill moon rock that went missing from Honduras in the early 1990s. It resurfaced in 1998 while Gutheinz was running a sting operation dubbed "Operation Lunar Eclipse" to ferret out fakes. A United States citizen tried to sell a moon rock in its acrylic shell complete with plaque for $5 million. Unfortunately for him, the "buyer" turned out to be Gutheinz in his undercover role, posing as a rich collector. The rock was seized by federal agents and returned to Honduras.
That wasn't the end, though. The dealer argued in federal court he was the rightful owner, having purchased the ball for $50,000 from a retired Honduran military official. It became one of the most strangely named cases in US legal history: "United States of America vs. One Lucite Ball Containing Lunar Material."
Finally, in March 2003, a federal judge ruled that Honduras was the lawful owner, not the dealer, who was not charged. The rock made its formal return to Honduras in a February ceremony. Today, Gutheinz is on the hunt for US moon rocks given to Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Niger, Gabon, Republic of Congo, Romania - and Malta. He fears, though, that the Afghanistan moon rock might have been destroyed, or even sold by the Taliban regime to fund government operations or terrorism.
Lest there be any ambiguity when it comes to lunar pebbles, NASA would like to make one thing clear: You can't legally own one - not yet, anyway. In 2000, Congress introduced legislation to permit astronaut moon-rock ownership - and new moves in this direction are rumored.
For now, all the goodwill rocks belong to the countries honored by President Nixon. The rest - less than 1,000 pounds' worth - are owned by NASA. That scarcity and restriction make a moon rock like the one from Malta potentially worth millions at auction.
Con men, as well as innocent-but-ignorant sellers who think they have a moon rock, today pose another big challenge for NASA's lunar sleuths. In 1995, for instance, two brothers tried to auction a fake moon rock, claiming it was a gift from an astronaut to their late father, a former NASA worker. The brothers were reportedly caught when the auction house queried NASA and was told even astronauts can't own a moon rock.