Apollo moon rocks lost in space? No, lost on Earth

Attention, countries of the world: Do you know where your moon rocks are?

The discovery of a fake moon rock in the Netherlands' national museum should be a wake-up call for more than 130 countries that received gifts of lunar rubble from both the Apollo 11 flight in 1969 and Apollo 17 three years later.

Nearly 270 rocks scooped up by U.S. astronauts were given to foreign countries by the Nixon administration. But according to experts and research by The Associated Press, the whereabouts of some of the small rocks are unknown.

"There is no doubt in my mind that many moon rocks are lost or stolen and now sitting in private collections," said Joseph Gutheinz, a University of Phoenix instructor and former U.S. government investigator who has made a project of tracking down the lunar treasures.

The Rijksmuseum, more noted as a repository for 17th century Dutch paintings, announced last month it had had its plum-sized "moon" rock tested, only to discover it was a piece of petrified wood, possibly from Arizona. The museum said it inherited the rock from the estate of a former prime minister.

The real Dutch moon rocks are in a natural history museum. But the misidentification raised questions about how well countries have safeguarded their presents from Washington.

Genuine moon rocks, while worthless in mineral terms, can fetch six-figure sums from black-market collectors.

Of 135 rocks from the Apollo 17 mission given away to nations or their leaders, only about 25 have been located by CollectSpace.com, a website for space history buffs that has long attempted to compile a list.

That should not be taken to mean the others are lost — just that the records kept at the time are far from complete.

The AP reviewed declassified correspondence between the State Department and U.S. embassies in 1973 and was able to locate ten additional Apollo 17 rocks — in Switzerland, Belgium, Italy, Barbados, France, Poland, Norway, Costa Rica, Egypt and Nepal.

But the correspondence yielded a meager 30 leads, such as the name of the person who received them or the museum where they were to be initially displayed. Ecuador and Cyprus are among several that said they had never heard of the rocks. Five were handed to African dictators long since dead or deposed.

The outlook for tracking the estimated 134 Apollo 11 rocks is even bleaker. The locations of fewer than a dozen are known.

"NASA turned over the samples to the State Department to distribute," said Jennifer Ross-Nazzal, a NASA historian, in an e-mailed response to questions. "We don't have any records about when and to whom the rocks were given."

"The Office of the Historian does not keep records of what became of the moon rocks, and to my knowledge, there is no one entity that does so," e-mailed Tiffany Hamelin, the State Department historian.

That may seem surprising now, but in the early 1970s, few expected Apollo 17 would be the last mission to the moon. With the passage of time, the rocks' value has skyrocketed.

NASA keeps most of the 382 kilograms (842 lbs) gathered by the Apollo missions locked away, giving small samples to researchers and lending a set of larger rocks for exhibitions.

Apollo 11 gift rocks typically weigh just 0.05 grams, scarcely more than a grain of rice. The Apollo 17 gift rocks weigh about 1.1 grams. Both are encased in plastic globes to protect them and ease viewing.

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