State's elusive moon rock soon to become a big star

Staff WriterJuly 28, 2010 

  • Moon rocks and soil were collected during six Apollo missions, beginning with Apollo 11, which landed on the moon July 20, 1969, and ending with Apollo 17 in December 1972. Apollo 13 orbited the moon but failed to land because of mechanical problems.

— It is the hardest proof of a peak of human achievement, far rarer than any gem and maybe worth $5 million or more.

It's also a drab little black pebble encased in a plastic ball and glued to a slightly kitschy early 1970s plaque. Which might help explain how the state's official moon rock ended up in a desk drawer at the Department of Commerce, then spent the past seven years in the custody of an N.C. State University professor who took it on occasional visits to school groups.

No longer. On Tuesday, the professor, Christopher Brown, brought the rock and other artifacts that it came with to the state Museum of Natural Sciences, where it is expected to go on display in a major new wing called the Nature Research Center when it opens in the fall of 2011.

"I've shown it to, who knows, hundreds of people," Brown told museum officials after handing over the rock. "You'll show it to thousands every day."

Joseph Gutheinz, a retired NASA investigator who since 2002 has led an informal project to locate the 370 or so lunar samples given to the states and other countries, said he was overjoyed to hear that North Carolina's had surfaced. But, he added, the museum needs to be careful.

A host of moon rocks have been stolen, from NASA itself in several cases, and a few have apparently traded hands for millions of dollars.

Some are now displayed under bulletproof glass with video cameras trained on them and guards nearby, said Gutheinz, a Houston lawyer who teaches classes in investigative techniques at the University of Phoenix. Over the years, he has assigned about 1,000 students to help locate the rocks.

"When people know where this moon rock is, it will become a target," Gutheinz said. "You want it on display, you want it shown. But if they don't create a secure display, it's like a bundle of money just sitting out there, and someone will make a play for it."

He said his students have often been shocked by how casually some foreign and state officials have treated the "goodwill rocks." One was found in a shoebox; others have been placed in drawers; dictators stole at least two, and Ireland's was thrown away after a fire.

North Carolina's rock

North Carolina received its moon rock in 1973 after it was brought back on Apollo 17, the last of six manned lunar missions. It came with two tiny state flags that had made the trip, a mission patch and a handwritten note signed by the three astronauts on the mission: Eugene A. Cernan, Ronald E. Evans and Harrison H. Schmitt.

The faded note, mounted behind glass, reads "Presented to the people of the great state of North Carolina, James E. Holshouser, Governor, with deep appreciation of your past and sincere best wishes for your future."

It's unclear what happened after that, Brown said. In 2003, though, a colleague of his took a new post at the state Commerce Department and found the plaque with the now-unglued rock and the letter when he opened the drawers of his new desk.

He asked permission to lend them to Brown, an associate vice chancellor and director of the N.C. Space Grant, a consortium of 11 universities and the community college system that, among other things, awards NASA-funded scholarships. Brown often makes presentations on space and space-related science.

Brown said Tuesday that he was happy to be able to use the rock temporarily, but always knew it needed a better, permanent home. While helping plan the new museum wing, he told museum officials about it and suggested that it be displayed there with space-related material, including the museum's growing collection of meteors.

We have space dust, too

Astronauts brought back 842 pounds of moon rock, said Robert Pearlman of the website www.collectspace.com , which is popular with space buffs. Most of it was set aside for study.

Dust and tiny fragments from Apollo 11, though, were sent to all 50 states and more than 130 countries. North Carolina's lunar sample from that mission - so small that geologists wouldn't call it rocks, Pearlman said - is in the Museum of History.

A second round of gifts to the states and countries, from the Apollo 17 mission, was different. All were taken from a single large rock that was dated at 3.9 billion years. Each sample weighs exactly 1.142 grams, about the same as a paper clip. The plastic balls they are embedded in not only protect them but magnify them so they look about the size of the tip of a man's little finger.

In recent years there have been shady deals involving moon rocks. In one case, a U.S. businessman apparently bought Honduras' rock from a military leader there and then tried to sell it for $5 million to NASA investigators, one of them Gutheinz, posing as private buyers.

That brought the goodwill rocks to the attention of Pearlman, who now works with Gutheinz to keep a list of their locations on his website, with blanks for those that are unconfirmed.

Thefts and the growing realization of the value of the rocks are leading some states to pull theirs off exhibition, Pearlman said.

Gutheinz said that despite the risks and costs, it's crucial that states share the rocks with the public.

"What you're seeing there is a fragment of the dream that Kennedy had, of going to the moon and making a truly American kind of accomplishment," he said.

jay.price@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4526

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