President Richard Nixon (center) handing Alaska’s Apollo 11 moon rock and plaque to Alaska Governor Keith Miller at the Governors Conference Washington DC in 1969, with Mrs. Nixon, Mrs. Miller look on. Thought to have been lost in a museum fire in 1973, the missing rock has now reappeared. (The Richard Nixon Presidential Library & Museum)
The moon rock, flag, and plaque, which was purportedly retrieved from the rubble of the Alaska Transportation Museum after a fire in 1973. Digging through the refuse while helping to clean up, Coleman Anderson says he found the plaque and thought it was “cool.” Anderson has filed a lawsuit against the state of Alaska to obtain legal ownership of the rock. (courtesy Dan Harris)
Story last updated at 7/1/2011 - 6:33 pm
In 1973, arsonists set fire to the Alaska Transportation Museum in Anchorage. Among the lost exhibits was Alaska’s moon rock, brought back to Earth during the Apollo 11 mission and gifted to the state by President Richard Nixon. Tracking it down came to a dead end, and as time went by many people who knew anything about it were gone as well.
But now, nearly four decades later, Alaska’s moon rock may have risen from the ashes, along with new light on the mystery of what happened to it, proving its story to be as inscrutable as the moon once was.
In the 1960s, when Alaska was still a fledgling state, the U.S. was caught up in a heated “Moon Race” with the Soviet Union. After disasters and triumphs, a team of scientists and astronauts successfully completed a moon landing on July 20, 1969, with less computer processing power than you’ll find in your low-end “singing” birthday card today.
President Nixon gave moon rocks to each U.S. state. Alaska Governor Keith Miller received the state’s prize, four incredibly small, incredibly rare rocks encased in a Lucite globe. Also included was a little Alaska state flag, which had hitched a ride in the lunar module.
The plaque ended up on display at the Transportation Museum. After the fire, Alaska’s irreplaceable symbol of human exploration and unity in space was thought to be lost forever.
Who could have foreseen that more than 37 years later, the moon rock would reappear, with a price tag attached?
THE MOON ROCK HUNTER
Besides their scientific and symbolic value, moon rocks are big business. Anything rare can fetch colossal sums on the black market, but things from outer space are in a league of their own. This has led to theft, even forgery and fraud, in attempt to cash in on the lunar rock craze. But there are those who also hunt for fragments of the moon with a very different goal in mind.
Operation Lunar Eclipse, the landmark 1998 undercover investigation, was the first time federal agents seized space contraband. Senior Special Agent Joseph Gutheinz with NASA’s Office of Inspector General lead the sting operation, an attempt to bust moon rock counterfeiters preying on unwitting suspects willing to fork over their life savings to grifters. He created a fictitious persona of “Tony Coriasso,” which actually sounds like someone who deals in rare space debris (though the name came from his uncle), and a dummy company, “John’s Estate Sales.” He baited the hook with a quarter page advertisement in “USA Today,” illustrated with an astronaut jumping on the moon, and the words “Moon rocks wanted.” It didn’t take long for the operation to pay off.
“I got this call from this guy,” Gutheinz said, “who says, ‘Hey Tony, you know those other guys selling moon rocks? I don’t know about them, but I got the real thing.’”
The dealer showed a photograph to Gutheinz. Like Alaska’s, there was a little Lucite ball affixed to a plaque with a flag, though this was one of the “Goodwill” rocks from the Apollo 17 mission, gifted to every country in the world (at the time, 135). It was from Central America, but the name of the country and part of the flag were obscured.
A couple of months later, negotiations were completed and the price was settled: “Tony Coriasso” would buy the moon rock for $5 million, cash. Although it sounds like a cartoonish amount of money, Gutheinz’s research showed that it was a reasonable amount to offer and wouldn’t give him away.
The two formed an agreement that the seller would meet an independent third party, a bank officer, in the vault of a bank in Florida to show him the goods. Wary that he might be dealing with undercover agents, the seller made the demand that he had to contact “Coriasso” in Texas by telephone to prove that he wasn’t in Miami.
“Unfortunately he didn’t appreciate the way cell phones work,” Gutheinz said.
In the vault, the seller brought out the Lucite ball — without the plaque — and then the “bank officer,” who turned out to be a U.S. customs agent, took the moon rock into custody. When the seller returned to his car, he found Gutheinz and his partner Bob Cregger sitting on the trunk of his car, in which they later found the plaque and the flag.
The moon rock was authenticated and was discovered to be the Goodwill rock from Honduras. A protracted lawsuit followed, with perhaps the greatest case name in all of recorded legal history: “United States of America v. One Lucite Ball Containing Lunar Material (One Moon Rock) and One Ten Inch by Fourteen Inch Wooden Plaque.” After several years of litigation, the judge finally found in favor of the U.S., and the rock was returned to Honduras.
Now retired from the agency, Gutheinz is an attorney in Houston, Texas, and a professor of criminal justice at the University of Phoenix. His work with lunar treasures led him to begin his Moon Rock Project, where he assigns his graduate students to track down missing moon rocks. Gutheinz, who has been nicknamed “The Moon Rock Hunter” by some of his students (à la late Australian wildlife expert Steve Irwin’s television moniker), said it is a perfect exercise for someone heading into law enforcement.
“Because it’s a real investigation … safe, and … the students can actually do some good, giving back to society,” he said.
In the past nine years, 1,000 of his students have hunted for moon rocks. So far, they’ve located 77 of them, though not always in as thrilling ways as the Honduran rock; sometimes they were simply discovered packed away the back of a museum. In a few cases former governors were found in possession of them, though they were quickly returned. One was in someone’s garage in West Virginia.
In total there were 270 rocks presented to states and nations (from both the Apollo 11 and Apollo 17 missions), and at present Gutheinz said 160 are missing, destroyed or stolen, perhaps unrecoverable. But the tale of Alaska’s moon rock, which had slept for decades, began to wake up.
ALASKA’S MOON ROCK
Last year, Elizabeth Riker, a graduate student at the University of Phoenix, began the investigation anew. As part of her course work under the tutelage of Gutheinz, she was assigned the task of finding out what had become of the rock.
“It’s a pretty safe type of investigation,” Riker said. “You’re not looking for drug dealers or serial killers.”
For the assignment, Riker also had to publish her findings somewhere, and ended up with her story printed in the Capital City Weekly (CCW) in August, 2010 (read it in our archives online at capitalcityweekly.com/stories/081810/spe_696934951.shtml). In her letter, she reported that the furthest she could trace the moon rock was to a scheduled exhibition at the Chugiak Gem and Mineral Society in Anchorage, February 12-24, 1971. After that it had vanished from the paperwork she had access to. Although compliant, many of the Alaskan people and agencies she contacted didn’t know about the rock’s existence, let alone its whereabouts. She expressed frustration that nothing was being done by Alaska law enforcement to locate the rock.
One lead came from someone who recalled having seen it on display in the Seward Museum in Seward, Alaska, after that date, but it turned out to be a dead end; it had been a sample from the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.
Placing a value on something as rare a rock fetched from the moon by human hands is difficult. Riker said the price has been driven up by black market buyers willing to spend millions of dollars for a piece, or even a crumb, of the pie in the sky. Instead of just being wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice, Riker said those seeking illegally sold moon rocks are likely obsessed with outer space.
“I’m a music enthusiast, and I’ve paid a ridiculous amount for things before,” she said. “I spent … 75 or 80 bucks for a rare CD.”
Locating Alaska’s moon rock could help in a number of ways, Riker said, such as renewing interest in space programs, which have been in economic jeopardy in recent years, or with even more peculiar disputes.
“It could help get rid of the conspiracy theory … that we haven’t been (to the moon),” she said. (Author’s note: If you believe in this conspiracy, now might be a good time to stop reading.)
THE PLOT THICKENS
When Riker was investigating the location of Alaska’s moon rock, she had approached Alaska State Museum (ASM) Curator of Collections Steve Henrikson for help. The museum had conducted its own search after the museum fire, eventually filing it in the “inactive” drawer when nothing turned up. Henrikson turned over what he could dig up.
The first whiff of the rock’s existence came about some time after Riker’s letter was printed in the CCW, in an unusual way. A Freedom of Information Act request came from an attorney in Seattle, Wash., asking for all available information about the 1973 fire at the Transportation Museum.
“He didn’t say anything about moon rocks … it was kind of strange, we had no idea what they were getting at,” Henrikson said. “It was another couple of months before we actually found out what it was all about.”
While looking through the paperwork, they had found a document from risk management stating they had seen the moon rock in its display case among the rubble after the fire, intact.
“So we knew it had survived the fire, but then it went missing,” Henrikson said.
The ASM didn’t hear anything more until a legal suit was filed against it along with the state of Alaska for legal ownership of the moon rock.
The legal complaint was filed against the state of Alaska and the ASM in December, 2010 by Coleman Anderson, publicly known as captain of the crabbing vessel Western Viking from the reality television show “Deadliest Catch.” Anderson announced he has possessed the moon rock and plaque since 1973.
Anderson’s lawyer, Dan Harris, said Anderson, at the age of 17, went to the Transportation Museum after the fire, when the debris removal process was underway. Digging through the refuse while helping to clean up (his father or adoptive father was the curator of the museum, Harris said), Anderson found the plaque and moon rock and thought it was “cool.” The crews working were aware of his presence, and in full site of them he took the moon rock home.
The state of Alaska did have ownership of the moon rock after it was gifted by President Nixon, Anderson’s attorney argued in the complaint, however it relinquished ownership “when it instructed garbage crews to remove and dispose of it after meticulously searching through the debris for all objects it wished to salvage.” The state and the museum never made any effort nor filed any report on its loss, Harris said.
Anderson’s moon rock has yet to be authenticated, and its location is unknown. According to Harris, he is not aware of exactly where it is, but he believes it to be in “some foreign country.”
The ASM was provided with a photograph, but proper testing will need to be conducted in order to be sure, Henrikson said. If the display or moon rocks were damaged in the fire, as has been suggested by Anderson’s complaint, irreversible contamination or injury might have occurred.
A countersuit has also now been submitted by the state of Alaska and the ASM, denying most of the contents of the complaint.
The ultimate goal is to clear the title so that Anderson could sell the rock, Harris said, but the hard thing to nail down, as with many legal disputes, is what Alaska’s moon rock is worth.
ASK FOR THE MOON
Putting a price tag on something so priceless — or worthless, perhaps — as moon rock is difficult, to say the least. Even the cliché of the value of something being solely “what someone is willing to pay for it” gets tossed out the window, as shown with Gutheinz’s Operation Lunar Eclipse.
According to the complaint filed by Anderson, “In 1973, the Plaque was widely considered not to have any real monetary value, because it was assumed moon trips would soon become a nearly everyday occurrence.” The state of Alaska’s counterclaim says the plaque and rock “are and were of high monetary value.”
Along with the usual legal fees, Anderson’s complaint says that even if he is found not to be deemed the rightful owner, due to his stewardship and “restoration” of the rock and plaque he should be awarded “a monetary judgment equal to the current value of the Plaque.”
So what is the price, exactly? The black market rate? The exorbitant fuel costs of bringing them here? The number of children who are inspired to become mathematicians and engineers and future explorers just by gazing at a few motes suspended in Lucite at a museum?
Above all, the value of the moon rocks brought back to Earth is not based on utility, or beauty, or the number of them on our planet. Even our shallow peek into the staggeringly gigantic universe we find ourselves floating in shows there’s more than enough stones to go around.
But to many these flecks of basalt carried 240,000 miles mean more than all the world’s gold put together. Some might view them as the first chunks of dirt in an interstellar groundbreaking. For others, they might mean some quick, bountiful cash. For still others they might serve as evidence that human beings are some of the most stalwart little beings this galaxy could ever dream of.
In 1967, the Outer Space Treaty defined the “ownership” of the space outside of our terrarium. In part the international treaty stipulates that putting nuclear weapons in space or on the moon is strictly forbidden. But James Bond villainy aside, the real substance is that the moon, and indeed everything in the universe (other than our own planet), is part of the “common heritage of humanity,” a lofty and noble philosophical concept, which says outer space should not and cannot be possessed by individual nations or corporations. How well that will hold up as our species crawls further out into the neighborhood is yet to be seen.
Regardless of whether Alaska’s moon rock ends up back on public display in a museum in the state, or decorating the wall of some hidden fortress next to Jan Vermeer’s “The Concert” and a stuffed and mounted Pyrenean Ibex, the legal dispute surrounding the rock could very well drag out for some time to come, as in the case of the Honduran Goodwill rock.
“The value of the movie rights to this might exceed the value of the moon rock itself,” Henrikson said.
Special thanks Pamela Eisenberg and Ryan Pettigrew at the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum for aiding with documentation for this article under short notice.
Richard Radford can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.