The mystery of the missing moon rocks

| NASA has lost track of hundreds of rocks brought back by the Apollo missions
by Kristen Flavin
Posted 9/10/16, 10:33 am

U.S. astronauts brought back 842 pounds of moon rocks and dust from six different missions to the lunar surface between 1969 and 1972, according to NASA.

The majority of the rocks are in storage under NASA’s care. Most are at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, some are at White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico, and several more rocks are on loan to museums. But 270 rocks were given as gifts to the nations of the world, and many of them are now missing.

Earlier this year, an archivist going through Bill Clinton’s old file stumbled onto a lost moon rock given to the state of Arkansas in the 1970s. The rock was believed to be worth millions of dollars on the black market.

NASA has a team of investigators tasked with tracking down the lost rocks, which sometimes pop up in unexpected places.

Larry Burkett never actually walked on the moon, but he knew someone who did. Burkett, who died in 2003, was most well-known as an evangelical author and radio host who counseled people on finances. But before he got into ministry, he worked for General Electric at the Kennedy Space Center, monitoring the vital signs of the Apollo astronauts. While working there, Burkett got involved in a Bible study with one of the astronauts, Jim Irwin.

When Irwin returned from his Apollo 15 mission 45 years ago this month, he brought back with him a souvenir for Burkett: a rock from the moon. Burkett asked Irwin if it would be possible to trade for a rock brought back by Neil Armstrong from the Apollo 11 mission. And Irwin delivered, giving Burkett a rock he said came from the Sea of Tranquility.

Burkett’s grandson Ryan Burkett got to take the moon rock to school when he was younger.

“I went to a small private school, and everybody knew my grandfather there and my teachers, their eyes were just wide like silver dollars because they knew he worked at the space program,” Ryan said. “They weren’t like sure if it was true or not, but it was enough of a possibility that it blew their minds.”

Now the Burketts are trying to verify that the rock really did come from the moon.

Joseph Gutheinz, who now works as a criminal defense attorney, used to be a senior special agent for NASA. He’s known as the moon rock hunter.

“I’m still loyal to NASA. So if I find somebody that has a moon rock and they’re trying to figure out what do we do with them, I strongly encourage them to contact NASA and turn them back into NASA,” Gutheinz said. And I tell them, “Hey, look, if it’s the real thing … if it’s a real moon rock, it’s not yours. It belongs to the United States government. And so if they determine that it’s a moon rock, say goodbye to it because they’ll likely keep it.”

Gutheinz and his team of graduate students have tracked down moon rocks all over the world—mostly missing rocks given to political figures. Most cases of moon rocks in the general public are disappointments.

“Most of the time, … they believe they have a moon rock, but it turns out that it was a commemorative type of rock that may have been picked up in New Mexico or something like that, and as the story progresses over the years, what they think is a moon rock turns out to be nothing else but lava basalt that … anybody could pick up off the ground,” Gutheinz said.

Terry Parker, a Burkett family friend, has made contact with NASA on behalf of the family and arranged to have the supposed moon rock sent to the Johnson Space Center in Houston for evaluation. If the scientists determine the rock is really from the moon, NASA will add it to the rest of its collection.

Listen to Kristen Eicher’s report on moon rocks on the Aug. 9, 2016, episode of The World and Everything in It.

Kristen Flavin

Kristen is an assistant producer for WORLD Radio. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and has worked behind the scenes for WORLD Radio since it began in 2011. Follow her on Twitter @kristenflavin.

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  • Laura W
    Posted: Sat, 09/10/2016 12:26 pm

    I wonder, people debate the profitability of mining minerals from the moon or asteroids, but how much of a market would there be just for selling the rocks as souveniers instead?

    Also, if NASA owns all the moon rocks, then the astronauts weren't allowed to have any personal souveneirs from the moon, however small? That sounds rather unfortunate, if true.

  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Sat, 09/10/2016 01:21 pm

    That is typical of bureaucracies.

  •  William Peck 1958's picture
    William Peck 1958
    Posted: Sat, 09/10/2016 02:20 pm

    never knew that about Larry Burkett, interesting.

    So rocks from the moon are indistinguishable from earth rocks ? 

  • NT
    Posted: Mon, 09/12/2016 02:12 pm

    Lunar rocks are different. The basalts have different chemical compositions. Without looking it up, I believe lunar basalts are iron-poor compared to terrestrial basalts. Lunar rocks have "zap pits," where micro-meteorids have hit them, something earth rocks cannot have as our atmosphere protects us from such small particles. And they look different as they were formed in a lower gravity environment.

  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Sun, 09/11/2016 06:51 am

    What value is there for NASA to keep them all?

  •  Greg Mangrum's picture
    Greg Mangrum
    Posted: Sun, 09/11/2016 01:29 pm

    This anecdote isn't flattering of Larry Burkett: he has his fellow Christian, friend, and ASTRONAUT give him a moon rock (probably legitimate) and he asks for one supposedly of more value from the Apollo 11 mission? Seriously?! 

    The grass is not always greener; in fact, it's probably dead grass on the other side of the proverbial fence.

    The lesson? Be content with the gifts you are given. 

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Posted: Sat, 10/29/2016 02:44 am

    I think the story is interesting and not necessarily unflattering of Larry Burkett.  The astronauts returning from the moon with a momento from the trip was probably common. Now NASA may want to lay claim to all the rocks, but I would think that originally some were kept by the astronauts. 

  • infohighwy
    Posted: Sun, 09/25/2016 02:27 pm

    When people come by to visit, they are usually impressed that that stuff on top of the table or bookshelf is not just any old dust, but very well-traveled space dust. Forget hundreds of pounds of moon rocks, because every day, 60 to 100 TONS of space stuff, much of it dust, hits the Earth, and I'm the proud owner of some of that (source: NASA).

    The next time someone comments on the dust on your table or bookshelf, kindly remind them that the seemingly worthless dust they see may have traveled trillions of miles over thousands of years to get there. Impressive, no? And all the time we just thought it was pesky and worthless Earth dust. It's all about enjoying every aspect of God's awesome universe, including the space dust!