Nasa launches vital new mission to recover its stolen moon rocks

Internal report says 517 rocks and 'astromaterial' samples have been stolen or are missing

The American space agency, Nasa, is not as busy as it once was sending astronauts into orbit aboard its recently retired shuttle fleet, which means it has time to attend to other urgent business, like trying to track down countless samples of moon rock it has handed out over the years that have gone missing.

A new internal report depicts an agency that has generously distributed extra-terrestrial flotsam, including moon rock, to government leaders and scientific institutions promising to use them for research. But it has also been peculiarly lax about monitoring the whereabouts of the moon rock and ensuring the bits on loan were returned.

According to the report, signed by Paul Martin, the Inspector General of Nasa, 517 moon rocks and other so-called "astromaterial" samples loaned out by the agency between 1970 – when Apollo missions began to collect them – and 2010 have gone missing or have been stolen.

The job of retrieval is partly being undertaken by Joseph R. Gutheinz Jr., a Texas lawyer who once was an undercover Nasa agent intercepting attempts by private citizens trying to sell moon rock they had nefariously acquired on the open market for millions. Now he tries to find lost rocks wherever he can find them, which is as likely to be in a shoebox as in a vault.

"If someone hands a governor a moon rock, and he keeps it or loses it, if you can't protect something like that, maybe they're not that vigilant," Mr Gutheinz, who has earned the sobriquet "Moon Rock Hunter", told the New York Times. "And if they're not that careful, and they bring it home with them, what else have they brought home with them?"

In 1998, Mr Gutheinz blocked the attempted sale of a nugget of lunar rock in Miami by a man who had acquired it in Honduras. The man tried to sell it to Mr Gutheinz, unaware of his real identify, for $5m (£3.2m).

Last year Nasa said it was investigating a California grandmother who was similarly caught in a sting trying to sell lunar rock she said were given to her by her late husband.

The new report, by Johnson Space Center's Astromaterials Acquisition and Curation Office, does not discuss the many samples given to leaders and figures like state governors that seem to have gone on walk-about.

It focuses on samples loaned to scientific institutions that now cannot be accounted for, mostly moon rock particles as well as meteorite and solar dust samples. Six important meteorite samples that were sent to the Carnegie Institution in 2004 apparently got lost in the post.

Nasa is also famously territorial about equipment taken into space, launching legal or disciplinary action against astronauts who have been keen to make money from unique pieces they have brought home from the missions.

Back to earth: suspect sales

Apollo 13 checklist

The 70-page booklet used by James Lovell to guide the damaged spacecraft back to Earth is currently languishing in the vaults of a Dallas auction house after Nasa questioned the astronaut's ownership. The checklist, which gained fame after Tom Hanks used it while playing Lovell the film Apollo 13, sold for $388,375 in November.

Apollo 14 camera

Nasa sued the former astronaut Edgar Mitchell in June last year after he tried to sell a camera he used to record the surface of the Moon during the Apollo 14 mission. The 16mm motion-picture camera has been given to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

Apollo 15 stamps

Several astronauts were the subject of disciplinary action after they stashed 398 commemorative postage stamps with them on their 1971 Moon mission, with the intention of selling them to a German dealer.

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