Society & Culture

As moon rocks disappear nationwide, Vermont’s specimens are safe

Lou Varricchio, The Vermont Eagle

MIDDLEBURY | Everybody wants a moon rock. NASA is hoping to return men and women to “Luna” in the coming decade. Even the Chinese want a piece of our nearest neighbor in space; their space agency this month is preparing to return lunar samples to Earth via a robot spacecraft.

An investigation by a Texas attorney, and former NASA security officer, revealed that some of U.S. President Richard Nixon’s goodwill gifts of Project Apollo moon rock “chips” to all 50 states have gone missing.

Thankfully, Vermont’s specimens, from both Apollo 11 and Apollo 17, are safe and secure in the Vermont Historical Society’s (VHS) holdings in Barre.

“We honestly believed that going back to the Moon was going to be a regular occurrence,” ex-NASA employee, attorney, and law professor Joseph Gutheinz has said in news reports. That’s likely why some of the states were so cavalier in preserving their lunar specimens for prosperity.

Apollo moon rocks are a national natural treasure and cannot be sold legally. However, some meteorites, and tektites found in southeast Asia, are believed to be of lunar origin. These examples are, technically, “moon rocks” as well.

In the case of the southeast Asian tektites, the late NASA researcher Dr. Dean Chapman used advanced computer modeling to trace the obsidian-like stones back to the giant lunar-crater Tycho.

Other lunar meteorites more closely match the Apollo specimen geochemistry; the out-of-space rocks have been found in Africa and elsewhere. These legal-to-own moon rocks are often found for sale on the internet at reasonable prices.

Moon-rock sleuth

Joseph Gutheinz spent several years tracking down the whereabouts of the 50-state Project Apollo treasures.

Gutheinz initially found 40 missing lunar specimens when he started in 2002. By the time he finished his investigation last year, only New York’s and Delaware’s specimens went missing. They have not been located.

Gutheinz started the Moon Rock Project at the University of Phoenix. It was a hands-on way for multiple classes of his criminal justice graduate students to practice their investigation skills. Over several years, they tracked down missing Apollo 11 and Apollo 17 lunar samples around the nation and Puerto Rico.

According to Gutheinz, students located 79 missing Apollo 11 and Apollo 17 specimens and plaques. They uncovered three that were “retained” by Gov. John Vanderhoof of Colorado, Gov. Arch Moore, Jr. of West Virginia, and Gov. Kit Bond of Missouri. (No federal charges were brought against the men, if such a thing was even ever considered.)

Regarding Vermont’s moon rocks, Gutheinz and his students found them to be safe, sound, and well-curated.

Teresa Teixeira Greene, VHS collections manager, confirmed Gutheinz’s findings.

“We (just) don’t know a whole lot of details about them,” Teixeira Greene told The Eagle. “They were presented by NASA to the state of Vermont, who in turn donated them to us. (We’re a semi-private institution.) As far as I can find in our records, there was little to no fanfare when they were transferred into our collection.”

It is unknown if the state had the legal authority to donate its specimens to a semi-private entity. But since half a century has passed, no one seems to be quibbling about it.

VHS’ Teixeira Greene noted that the Apollo 11 pedestal of samples were given to the organization in 1970 through Gov. Deane C. Davis. It contains four, 50-milligram fragments sieved from the lunar surface brought back by Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, Jr. on the historic first-landing Apollo 11 flight in July 1969. This gift was presented to Vermont by President Richard Nixon.

Vermont’s moon rocks

“The lunar fragments (in Vermont) are encased in resin, and the whole front of the pedestal is covered in plexiglass. The small flag on the front was carried on the mission,” Teixeira Greene said.

Another lunar specimen in Vermont, also presented by President Nixon, is from the Moon’s Taurus Littrow Valley. It appears to be basalt, similar chemically to Hawaiian lava rock.

“It was brought back as part of the Apollo 17 mission, on the spacecraft America, Dec. 7-19, 1972,” Teixeira Greene said. “The flag on the plaque was also carried on the craft as part of the mission.” Apollo 17 was the last lunar-landing mission.

VHS has another Apollo-related plaque, too, and it’s from the Apollo Applications Program’s Project Skylab.

“The plaque was given to us along with a poster that is inscribed, ‘To the people of the State of Vermont. For their contribution to making the dream of a manned earth-orbiting space station a reality,’ and signed by Skylab 3 astronauts Alan Bean, Owen Garriot, and Jack Lousma… The flag attached to the poster was carried onboard the Skylab… The (Skylab…) logo on the poster is printed on nylon, cut out, and applied to the poster board.”

Can Vermont taxpayers, who footed the bill for NASA’s lunar missions and the collecting of rock samples, get an up-close, personal look at the rare extraterrestrial rock specimens?