How a Houston lawyer tracks down missing moon rocks (+video)
Attorney Joe Gutheinz, a former NASA investigator, looks for missing pieces of the moon that returned with the Apollo astronauts.
The dark suit and tie that Joe Gutheinz wore set him apart from other customers inside a Texas eatery where the usual attire is jeans and cowboy hats.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Apollo 11 went to the moon
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
An appetite for down-home cooking wasn't what brought the former NASA investigator to the Pitt Grill recently. He was on a quest to identify and maybe recover some of the rarest treasure brought to Earth and then lost: moon rocks.
"We're educating the states and countries of the world about how much they're worth on the black market and we need to increase the security in museums and need to put them back on display," Gutheinz said.
The rock samples were collected by the dozen American astronauts who walked on the lunar surface between 1969 and 1972. U.S. states, territories, the United Nations and foreign governments received them as gifts. The samples, which also were loaned to museums and given to scientists for research, range from dust particles to tiny pebbles.
"A lot of them are in storage. And we need to put them in an inventory control system. And that's what's really lacking," said Gutheinz, a Houston lawyer who also teaches college classes in investigative techniques.
At the Pitt Grill in Buffalo, Texas, Gutheinz was meeting a former toy manufacturer from Colombia who contends his piece of the moon is from the more than 48 pounds (22 kilograms) of material collected in 1969 by Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the first manned lunar landing mission.
Rafael Navarro's asking price on eBay for dust scraped from his rock is $300,000. The dust weighs 0.03 grams, roughly the same as a grain of rice.
"Bottom line is, from a common sense perspective, this is a train wreck waiting to happen for him and he's inviting it," Gutheinz said. "He's opening the jail cell door and walking through it. I wish him well but he's really defying everybody by doing this."
Navarro, 67, said he didn't fear possible fallout from illegally possessing what could be federal government property or risking fraud charges for selling something as a moon rock when it may not be.
"NASA can't prove they ever had this moon rock," he said.
That part may be true.
The fact that something purporting to be a moon rock even shows up on eBay illustrates the greater problem of no one keeping proper track of the gifted and loaned rocks and the fate of many being unknown.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which keeps its collection of rocks at Johnson Space Center in Houston and a facility in New Mexico, has confirmed the lack of oversight and promised to tighten controls, concurring with a critical audit report last December from its own Office of Inspector General, whereGutheinz worked as a senior agent. He left NASA in 2000 after 10 years.
"From time to time, I get a call from somebody that has a moon rock and his father or her father died and was a scientist," Gutheinz said. "And they ask, 'What do I do with it?' I tell them, 'Give it back to NASA.' That's a real problem."