September 23, 2011
Among the things one expects to find while sifting through former President Bill Clinton’s stuff, a lost moon rock might be low on the list. The half ounce piece, one of the Goodwill Moon Rocks brought back on Apollo 17, was given to Arkansas three decades ago and reported missing sometime last year. Wednesday morning, reports the AP, an archivist who was looking through the former governor’s papers opened a box and discovered it. No one knows how it got in there, but the archivist, Bobby Roberts, who directs the Central Arkansas Library System, seems content to set ‘em up and knock ‘em down, “I guess it’s one more Arkansas mystery solved.”
This recently found moon rock is one of about 200 small fragments presented as gifts to foreign nations, U.S. states and territories. All were sliced from a single Apollo 17 sample, number 70017, and many are unaccounted for today. Various investigations have been pursued over the years to track down these and other missing moon rocks, including Operation Lunar Eclipse, the joint sting operation between NASA, the U.S. Postal Service and U.S. Customs that recovered the Goodwill Moon Rock originally given to Honduras. Another somewhat famous escapade includes the interns at Johnson Space Center who smuggled out a 600 pound safe containing samples from all the Apollo missions (the F.B.I. caught them).
NASA’s Office of the Inspector General keeps tabs on any information surfacing about moon rocks, both to collect missing pieces and to sweep counterfeit rocks off the market. Updates are published in the office’s semi-annual reports — just last year they recovered a Goodwill Moon Rock intended as a gift to Cyprus (pdf), however, “The plaque had been intended for delivery by a U.S. diplomat to the people of Cyprus as a gift when hostilities broke out in that country. The plaque had remained in the custody of the diplomat until his death and was recovered from his son.”
Wikipedia’s moon rocks page collects more stories, such as the ill-fated gift to Ireland: the Apollo 11 rock ended up in a landfill. (Their Apollo 17 rock is safe in a museum, at least.) Clearly, some of these will never be recovered. But sometimes, every once in a while, you can just open a box.