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.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Voices
Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and David Cameron appeal to the audience during the Question Time special
voices
Sport
Danny Jones was in the Wales squad for the 2013 World Cup
rugby leagueKeighley Cougars half-back was taken off after just four minutes
Life and Style
The original ZX Spectrum was simple to plug into your TV and get playing on
techThirty years on, the ZX Spectrum is back, after a fashion
News
Tiger Woods and Lindsey Vonn are breaking up after nearly three years together
peopleFormer couple announce separation in posts on their websites
Sport
football
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’
tvThe Enfield Haunting, TV review
News
The Mattehorn stands reflected in Leisee lake near Sunnegga station on June 30, 2013 near Zermatt, Switzerland
news
News
Michelle Dockery plays Lady Mary in Downton Abbey
peopleBut who comes top of the wish list?
News
Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, right, with Lib Dem candidate Jane Dodds in Newtown, Powys, as part of her tour in support of the party’s female candidates
general electionNick Clegg's wife has impressed during the campaign
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living