moon rocks

The Louisiana Art & Science Museum plans to exhibit the four moon rocks sometime for NASA's 50th anniversary of the Apollo's successful mission to the moon.

An obsessive space aficionado who once worked for NASA feared for Louisiana with the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing approaching: Had the state lost its lunar rocks?

The federal government spent $25 billion and astronauts traveled millions of miles to collect 842 (Earth) pounds of lunar material between 1969 and 1972. But Joseph Gutheinz, a former agent with NASA's inspector general's office, called The Advocate to say he and college students he has taught couldn't locate the space rocks presented to Louisiana after the first and last Apollo landings.

The newspaper's lunar exploration took about four hours.

“So exciting!” Gutheinz said after learning the moon rocks presented to Louisiana after America’s first successful trip to the moon are safe in a museum. “I’ve had students looking for them in every state in the union over and over again; Louisiana has been hunted down a number of times by many of my students to no avail.”

Proclaimed the “moon rock hunter,” Gutheinz has dedicated much of the last decade to tracking down seemingly missing moon rocks, which the U.S. presented as good will gifts to nations, states and territories. Many rocks have disappeared from public view — some stolen, others simply misplaced and some taken for private collections.

Gutheinz wants to ensure that all states find their missing rocks in time for the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's 1969 trip into history.

Louisiana was considered to be the only state without a recorded location of both the 1969 Apollo 11 moon rocks and 1972 Apollo 17 “Goodwill” moon rock, but it turns out Louisiana's collection of 1969 moon rocks is secure at the Louisiana Art and Science Museum in Baton Rouge.

“We take care of it and treat it the same way as every object in our collection,” said Elizabeth Weinstein, the museum's chief curator. In 1982, the state’s first lady, Dodie Treen, presented the moon rocks to the museum, and Weinstein said they have remained there ever since.

Sun Magazine reported on Sept. 26, 1982, that "Mrs. Treen explained that after trying to exhibit them in the governor’s mansion and checking on possible places to show them, she had decided the (Louisiana Art and Science Museum) Planetarium was the most suitable location.”

However, Weinstein said, at some point the moon rocks were removed from their original mounting, which includes a plaque with a small Louisiana flag that also went to the moon and the rocks’ official authentication from NASA. 

Museum officials recently restored the rocks to their original plaque and hope to have them back on view by July 20, 2019, the 50th anniversary of when Armstrong took "one small step."

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As for the piece of the Apollo 17 moon rock that was given to Louisiana, Weinstein had no idea where it might be. There is no record of its presentation or exhibit in The Advocate’s archives. The Louisiana State Museum and state archives and governor’s office had no record of it, though the governor's office said it is still looking.

A 2011 audit of NASA’s management of space specimens found that, since 1970, 517 items have been lost or stolen, including many of the “Goodwill” moon rocks, though that number remains elusive because NASA doesn't have a formal tracking system for the material.

Gutheinz called the number of missing moon rocks, from both Apollo 11 and Apollo 17, nearly disrespectful.

“This is something our brave astronauts who went to the moon (brought back),” Gutheinz said. “These treasures were brought back from NASA for the people of the world, not for the rich of the world or the greedy of the world. ... It’s a public ownership interest, not a private.”

When Apollo 17 astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt picked up the rock that was later broken down for gifts worldwide, they said they wanted pieces of the “Goodwill Rock” to be shared with “the children of the world,” according to the 2011 audit.

“Though NASA still has about 80 percent of the original rock, the hundreds of fragments that were given to countries around the world and each U.S. state are not tracked by NASA,” the audit says.

Gutheinz began his moon rock work hoping to keep specimens off the black market, but after finding so many seemingly missing, he took his work even further and has been able to locate many of them.

In Alaska, one rock ended up in the hands of a former museum curator’s relative after the museum burned down — and after a legal battle it is back in the state’s possession. Others have been found in shoe boxes, in desk drawers, unmarked in storage or at illegal auctions, Gutheinz said. In Delaware, the moon rock display was reported stolen, he said. 

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — A display of moon rocks that disappeared from an Alaska museum after an arson fire nearly four decades ago has been r…

The manager of the Louisiana Space Grant Consortium said the Apollo rocks can inspire students to careers in math, science and technology.

“These Apollo mission lunar rocks provide an authentic means for pondering a momentous scientific and historic event," LaSPACE manager Colleen Fava said. "If we want to convince our communities that scientific research is worthwhile, we need to share the fruits of those endeavors.”


Follow Grace Toohey on Twitter, @grace_2e.