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From 1969 through 1972 six Apollo missions landed on the moon and returned a total of 840 pounds of moon rocks to the Earth.
Geologists were able to study them and learned an enormous amount about the composition and formation of the moon.
However, those same rocks have been the center of several controversies and mysteries ever since they came back to Earth.
Learn more about moon rocks and where they are now on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
This episode is sponsored by Audible.com
My audiobook recommendation today is The Case of the Missing Moon Rocks by Joe Kloc
Joseph Gutheinz is on a mission to save the moon. Decades ago, astronauts brought back 850 pounds of rocks from their lunar journeys; the U.S. gave some away as “goodwill” gifts to the world’s nations. Over time, many of them disappeared, stolen or lost in the aftermath of political turmoil, and offered for millions on the black market. Gutheinz, first as a NASA investigator and then the leader of an intrepid group of students, has dedicated his life to getting them back.
Author Joe Kloc tells a wild story of geopolitics, crime, science, and one man’s obsession with keeping the moon out of the wrong hands.
You can get a free one-month trial to Audible and 2 free audiobooks by going to audibletrial.com/EverythingEverywhere or clicking on the link in the show notes.
Let’s start with the basics. What is a moon rock?
A moon rock………is a rock…….that comes…….from the moon.
While that is a pretty obvious tautology, for the purpose of this episode I’m only going to focus on moon rocks which have been brought to Earth.
There aren’t very many moon rocks on Earth. In fact, they are one of the rarest substances on the planet.
There are only four sources of moon rocks.
The first source is meteorites that have landed on Earth that were ejected from the moon. It is possible to tell the origin of meteorites by their chemical composition. As of today, only 370 meteorites pieces have been identified as having come from the moon, and those come from only 30 sources. None of them were found after an observed meteor falling from space. The total mass of all moon meteorites found on Earth is around 190 kilograms or 420 pounds.
The other sources all come from human activity.
The Chinese Chang’e 5 mission returned 1.7 kilograms or 61 ounces of moon rock to Earth in 2020.
The Soviet Union sent several unmanned probes to the moon during their Luna program. Three of them managed to successfully return samples of moon rock back to Earth. Luna 16 in 1970 returned 101 grams, Luna 20 in 1972 returned 55 grams, and Luna 24 in 1976 sent back 170 grams of moon rock. The total amount brought back by the Soviets was less than a third of a kilogram.
The largest amount of moon rock on Earth today by far came from the Apollo program, and it is these rocks that I’ll be focusing on for the rest of the episode.
The Apollo astronauts took samples from several different locations near their landing sites. Some of the later missions were able to travel several miles in a moon buggy to collect samples further away. The total amount of moon rock brought back to Earth by all six Apollo missions was 381 kilograms.
While there are some chemical similarities between the Earth and the Moon, the geology of the Moon is very different. The moon is much smaller, so when it was formed it cooled quicker. There is no atmosphere on the moon, so there is no weathering.
On Earth, there are three types of rock: igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary. On the moon, there is basically only one type: igneous. These were rocks created when the moon was formed. Many of these rocks on the surface have been pulverized by billions of years of meteors, micrometers, cosmic rays, and solar wind.
Back when I studied geology, I actually had a professor who worked on analyzing some of the moon rocks when he was in the graduate program at Harvard in the early 70s. It was actually exciting stuff to be able to work on such a brand new branch of geology.
This episode really isn’t about the geochemistry of the moon, however. It is about the rocks themselves, not the science behind them.
The vast majority of the moon rocks returned to Earth by the Apollo missions are located at the Lunar Sample Laboratory Facility located at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
There is another smaller collection of rocks at the White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico.
In both facilities, the rocks are stored in nitrogen gas so they don’t chemically react with anything, and they are almost never physically touched by humans.
There are also a small number of samples that are sent to researchers around the world who apply for access to the rocks.
All of the moon rocks collected by the Apollo missions are the property of the United States government and they are meticulously tracked.
But there are some exceptions.
These rocks are not used for scientific inquiry. These are called Goodwill Moon Rocks.
After the Apollo 11 landing and the return of the very first moon rocks, the United States government gave very small samples to all 50 states, 135 countries, and the United Nations. These even included nations that the United States was at odds with at the time such as the Soviet Union.
The samples were extremely small. Each country was given about the equivalent of a couple of grains of rice. The samples were mounted in an acrylic button and placed on a wooden stand with a small flag from the state or country which was also taken to the moon.
The Apollo 11 rocks were not the only ones given away as gifts. There were also samples given away from the very last Apollo mission, Apollo 17.
Astronauts Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmidt had collected more moon rocks than any other mission, and Schmidt was an actual geologist and was the first and only scientist to land on the moon.
The very last rock that they picked up, the last moon rock collected in the entire Apollo program, was a three-kilogram sample of basalt. While they picked it up there was a group of children from many different countries listening to the mission live at mission control in Houston.
Cernan gave a short speech about how they wished for this rock to inspire the children of the world and also how they wished for this rock to be broken up and given to all the nations of the Earth.
The rock was cataloged as “Lunar basalt 70017” but it became known as the “children of the world rock”, or the “goodwill rock”
When the “children of the world” rock was brought back to Earth, it was broken up and given out as a goodwill gift in 1973 to all of the previous recipients of the Apollo 11 rocks. The sample of the Apollo 17 rock was significantly larger than the samples from the Apollo 11 mission. The acrylic ball that the rock was encased in was about the size of a golf ball.
A few more Apollo 17 rocks were given out to countries that gained their independence after 1973.
A total of 270 moon rocks were given to other countries, 105 were given to US states and territories, and 2 were given to the United Nations.
Once the goodwill moon rocks were given out, they were soon forgotten.
Here is an interesting question: What is the value of a moon rock? How much would one be worth?
According to NASA, they are officially invaluable. There is no price which they place upon it because they are never for sale because they are illegal to sell.
However, we can certainly put a price tag on it. If you calculate the cost required to collect the moon rocks, basically the entire cost of the Apollo program, which is $257 billion in inflation-adjusted, and divide that by the weight of all the moon rocks which were brought back, 381,000 grams, you end up with a value of about $674,000 per gram.
To put that into perspective, the value of gold at the time I am recording this is $56.97 a gram.
That means that moon rocks are one of the rarest and move valuable substances in the world.
In 1993, Sobathy’s held an auction of Soviet space memorabilia. One of the items up for auction was a few tiny flakes of moon rocks weighing only 0.2 of a gram and it sold for $442,500. It later sold for almost twice that much in 2018.
It should then come as no surprise that once those goodwill moon rocks were given out, many of them just disappeared.
Rumors began circulating that moon rocks were being sold on the black market.
Enter into the picture Joseph Gutheinz. He was an attorney for NASA and in 1998 he other federal officials launched a sting operation to catch people selling fake moon rocks.
They put out an ad in USA Today and the con men started reaching out to sell them fake moon rocks.
However, one person who responded to the ad claimed to have a real moon rock, and his asking price was $5,000,000. It turned out to be the goodwill moon rock given to the nation of Honduras.
Rumors had it that the goodwill rock given to Nicaragua was sold for $10 million dollars to an anonymous buyer from the Middle East.
It was purchased from a Honduran colonel who claimed to have been given the rock by the former dictator of Honduras, Oswaldo Enrique López Arellano.
They got the $5 million dollars from former presidential candidate and billionaire Ross Perot for the sting operation and managed to nab the guy selling it in Miami on customs charges for failing to declare it upon entry into the country.
After that Gutheinz left NASA but kept an interest in tracking down the goodwill moon rocks.
It turns out that of the 270 given to other countries, a full 180 of them were missing. Even the rocks given to Delaware and New Jersey have disappeared.
Many of the rocks have simply been misplaced or lost and were put in storage and forgotten.
In 2007, this is where I enter the story. Normally I will toss a humble brag when I’m recording an episode and mention someplace I visited that is relevant to the discussion.
In this case, I actually did have a tiny part to play in the story.
In 2007 I was visiting the nation of the Solomon Islands and I was in the capital city of Honiara. I was visiting the national museum when, to my surprise, amongst all the cultural artifacts from the country, I saw the wooden plaque and the goodwill moon rock given to the Solomon Islands.
It was in a display case, the kind you might see in a department store, and there were no locks on the case whatsoever.
I had previously read about the $5,000,000 sale price put in the moon rock, and it seemed that I was the only person in the Solomon Islands who knew the value of what sitting in the case.
I asked one of the museum staff if I could take the plaque out to photograph it because I was an American, and they said sure, no problem.
I wrote an article about discovering the moon rock on my blog and I then proceeded to contact none other than Joseph Gutheinz, who thanked me for tracking down the Solomon Islands moon rock.
Over the years since I found the moon rock in the museum, I’ve been contacted by several people who read my article and visited Honiara to confirm that the moon rock is still there.
Where the rest of the goodwill moon rocks have gone, no one knows.
If you are personally interested in seeing and even touching an actual moon rock, there is one place you can do both. The lobby of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. It is known as the “touch rock”
The idea of it came from former Apollo lunar scientist Farouk El-Baz, who when he made a pilgrimage to Mecca as a child touched the black stone at the eastern corner of the Kaaba, the holiest site in Islam. He thought it would be an interesting idea to replicate with a piece of the moon.
What is interesting is NASA right now is planning for a return to the moon with the Artemis program. The size of the landers and the amount of equipment that can be sent to the moon and returned will be significantly more than during the Apollo program.
It is entirely possible that the future supply of moon rocks might explode and the price of moon rocks might drop dramatically. Maybe even cheap enough for you to buy one for yourself.