A Florida man whose hobbies include purchasing old plaques so he could recycle their wood to create gun stocks inadvertently discovered one that was out of this world. It included an Apollo 17 artifact missing from Louisiana for an untold number of years.

There was a time, a few generations ago, when just about anything associated with the U.S. space program's Apollo missions to the moon was a hot commodity, be it freeze-dried astronaut food or the powder that turned into the orange drink Tang.

But as memory has faded, so has the shine of those historic days when man's footsteps first touched the lunar surface.

Perhaps there's no more prominent example of that shift in public consciousness than the fate of 379 slivers of moon rock presented to the states, territories and foreign nations in the early to mid-1970s as goodwill gestures from the U.S. government and administration of President Richard Nixon.

By one accounting, the whereabouts of 171 of those moon rock displays remain unaccounted for roughly 50 years later.

Due to the honesty and conscientiousness of that unidentified Florida man, now both of Louisiana's goodwill rocks are back at home base.

Steven Maklansky, interim director of the Louisiana State Museum, said Tuesday the museum has the rock, which is contained in a Lucite ball and attached to a wooden plaque with a miniature replica of the state flag and inscriptions. The plaque commemorates the Apollo 17 mission, NASA's last manned mission to the moon.  

The museum is deciding how best to display and put in context this piece of Louisiana history.

"I just don’t know about its chain of ownership. As you can appreciate, I'm just happy that it is here now," Maklansky said.

The recovery late last year of Louisiana's missing goodwill moon rock was first reported Monday by journalist and space historian Robert Pearlman in his online publication CollectSpace

The case of Louisiana's missing moon rocks partially solved; hunt for second 'Goodwill' moon rock continues

Pearlman has reported for years on missing goodwill moon rocks and their occasional recovery in the homes, offices and historical collections of politicians, from locked drawers where they had been forgotten, and elsewhere. 

"It's the literal definition of the loss of institutional knowledge," Pearlman said.

Others were stolen years ago and remain lost or went to foreign leaders who kept them or gave them to friends.

Records show that Skylab astronauts presented lunar samples to Louisiana and then-Gov. Edwin Edwards in 1973; the Apollo 17 mission occurred in December 1972. 

The moon rocks remain highly valuable to a selected group of collectors. Through the years, Pearlman's reporting on the rocks has followed the investigations of Houston-area lawyer and retired NASA investigator Joseph Gutheinz Jr. and his criminal justice students.

While Gutheinz was still working for NASA, he was able to recover in the early 2000s a missing goodwill rock that had been given to Honduras. He was motivated to recover an item that was supposed to be a gift to that nation and its people.

Gutheinz said that case revealed how many of the other rocks were missing and how little accountability had been taken to track their whereabouts, sparking years of research.

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The circumstances of how Louisiana's Apollo 17 rock disappeared aren't known, and Gutheinz said Tuesday he had asked Louisiana officials to look into how it ultimately wound up at a Florida garage sale.

"This audit or investigation I believe is essential to prevent this moon rock from it being lost or stolen again and to ensure Louisiana is not missing any other state treasures," he said.

Gutheinz and Pearlman both said the plaque closely matches the design and layout of other goodwill rock plaques, but Gutheinz recommended the state have NASA test the rock to verify its authenticity because fakes do exist.

Pearlman said he was less certain of pursuing that path, given the circumstances of its discovery, because of how closely it matches other plaques and because testing the rock would involve drilling into it and destroying part of the display.

Maklansky, the state museum director, said part of the museum's process of accepting an item into its collection will require a review of its authenticity but officials haven't yet decided all the steps they will take to do so.

Louisiana has another goodwill rock, from the 1969 Apollo 11 mission, that Gutheinz and others had been unable to find. Gutheinz called The Advocate in 2018 to report that both Apollo rocks were missing, and a reporter for the newspaper found four hours later that the Apollo 11 rock was in storage at the Louisiana Art and Science Museum.

Pearlman, the journalist, interviewed the man who returned Louisiana's Apollo 17 moon rock. He said the man did not wish to be identified.

Pearlman reported that the man told him he had been collecting old plaques for years for the wood, so he could refurbish the stocks on his guns, and had amassed 15 to 16 boxes of old plaques. He said he likely bought the moon rock and its plaque at a garage sale at some point in the previous 15 years. The man recently pulled it out so he could use the wood for a gun repair.

Focused on the wood on the back of the plaque, the man felt the Lucite ball on the other side, turned over the plaque and read the inscriptions, Pearlman said.

Soon the man called Louisiana officials and was referred to the state museum.

Pearlman reports that the man was originally told to mail the plaque but he refused and personally delivered it to the state.

"He joked. He said, 'You know, there's no way he was going to go to FedEx and just ship it to them because then it could get lost in the mail and be lost again for another 50 years,'" Pearlman said.

Maklansky confirmed the plaque had been hand-delivered by a Florida man who said he had previously bought it second-hand.

Gutheinz called the latest discovery a "freak" thing but also one that deserves credit to the man who handed over the plaque and rock without seeking anything for them.

"What's incredible about him is he did the honest thing," Gutheinz said, "and that's the thing that I always love, just that, rather than keep it, rather than try to sell it, he took steps to return it to the state."

In one sign that things have a way of coming full circle, the man lives not far from Cape Canaveral, the coastal base from which the Apollo moon rockets and the NASA astronauts who recovered those lunar rocks had been launched.

This story has been updated to add that Skylab astronauts presented lunar samples to the state in 1973.

Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.