If you think everything the astronauts brought back from outer space is locked up tight in a museum somewhere, I've got a moon rock to sell you.
At least, somebody might.
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According to Joe Kloc's single, "The Case of the Missing Moon Rocks," Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford gave away small fragments of moon rock from the Apollo 11 and Apollo 17 missions to all 50 states and various countries as a gesture of good will — and because, really, how many moon rocks does one country need?
Over the years, some of these "goodwill moon rocks" disappeared. And many remain unaccounted for.
Joseph Gutheinz made it his mission to track them down. In the late '90s, Gutheinz was a special agent with NASA's Office of Inspector General working to catch "defrauders and embezzlers who picked NASA's loosely guarded pockets," and people pretending to be astronauts or pedaling fake space memorabilia.
Eventually he became obsessed with solving the "oldest, most widespread con" in NASA's history: "the trade in fake moon rocks." The idea of Operation Lunar Eclipse was simple: Gutheinz posed as an estate salesman, and Bob Cregger, a Postal Service inspector, pretended to be a wealthy buyer interested in moon rocks. The two placed an ad in USA Today and waited for a call.
A fruit salesman named Alan Rosen answered the ad. Years before, Rosen had acquired a moon rock from a Honduran colonel who said former dictator Oswaldo Lopez Arellano had given it to him.
To make a detailed story short, Rosen had a real moon rock. He was arrested, the rock was seized by U.S. authorities, and a lawsuit was filed. In his decision, the judge wrote that the colonel did not have the right to sell an item that was given to the Honduran people.The rock was later presented to a Honduran president.
After leaving NASA, Gutheinz became a criminal justice professor, but the moon-rock-finding bug never stopped biting. To this day he asks his students to investigate one of the 160 goodwill moon rocks still missing.
Kloc's story reads at times like a thriller as it shifts between Gutheinz's and Rosen's perspectives. Some of the passages bog down in unnecessary detail, and the narrative could have benefited from more quotes.
But the characters are well drawn, and the story intriguing.
"These rocks were relics of a singular time in world history," Kloc wrote, "a temporary calm in the madness of an arms race that in the U.S. alone produced 70,000 nuclear weapons and consumed $5.8 trillion."
The Case of the Missing Moon Rocks
By Joe Kloc, The Atavist, wherever e-books are sold