In Search of the Goodwill Moon Rocks: A Personal Account
Geotimes November 2004
Joseph Richard Gutheinz
In 1998, I conducted an undercover operation from a partially earth-covered bunker at the Johnson Space Center. The bunker was simply identified as Building 265, and the operation was known as Operation Lunar Eclipse. At that time, I was a senior special agent with NASA’s Office of Inspector General. My challenge was to locate and stop the predators who feed on the elderly by selling them bogus moon rocks, often for the victim’s life savings.
In this newly digitized photo by NASA from the Apollo 11 mission, Buzz Aldrin poses for a portrait on the lunar surface. Neil Armstrong’s reflection is visible in Aldrin’s visor. Courtesy of NASA.
These sales often occurred in the shadows — at society functions and at rock collector- or space-related conventions. My solution was to have the con men come to us. This was no easy task. In many cases, I negotiated for months with people who believed that I was an undercover agent intent on seizing their moon rocks, which of course was the case.
The Honduran moon rock
To start the operation, I created a fictitious company known as John’s Estate Sales and took on the undercover identity of Tony Coriasso. I then placed a quarter-page advertisement in USA Today entitled “Moon Rocks Wanted,” with a picture of an astronaut in his spacesuit jumping on the moon.
To my surprise, I was contacted by a motivated seller intent on selling me what he claimed was a real moon rock, for the asking price of $5 million. He directed me to a Web page that showed a plaque allegedly gifted to a country from President Nixon, as part of the Goodwill Moon Rocks. After Apollo 17 returned from America’s last manned mission to the moon, President Nixon decided that the countries of the world each deserved to have a piece of the moon. So he gave to each of 135 countries, friends and foes alike, a Goodwill Moon Rock affixed to a plaque. On the plaques were the countries’ flags that had also flown to the moon.
True to form, the plaque on the seller’s Web site had the flag of the country affixed to it, as well as a plate commemorating the gift and a Lucite ball containing the moon rock — a rock no bigger than the tip of my small finger. The flag was from one of the countries in Central America. However, several Central American flags are identical except for the center, and the seller of the moon rock had covered both the center of the flag and the name of the receiving country on the commemorative plate with tape. Thus, we could not discern which country’s moon rock was allegedly being sold, and, of course, he wouldn’t tell us.
To discern the truth, I first educated myself on the Goodwill Moon Rocks, and about the moon rocks maintained by NASA and Russia. I already knew that NASA had six Apollo missions that went to the moon and returned with 843 pounds of moon rocks and dust from 1969 to 1972. I did not know, however, that the Soviet Union had three unmanned probes that went to the moon between 1970 and 1976, retrieving their own moon rocks. Like the United States, Russia views its moon rocks as a national treasure, and like the United States, it tightly safeguards them.
Predicated on what I had learned in my research, I discerned that there was a good chance the moon rock was real, and that the $5 million asking price was credible. After all, it was a rock that a lunar curator could discern came from the moon and nowhere else — making it the rarest rock in the possession of any individual.
Two months after my initial contact with the seller, I finally met him in a swanky waterside restaurant in Miami and struck an agreement. The seller would pick the Miami bank, and I would pick the bank officer, and the seller would show the bank officer the moon rock in the bank’s vault.
When the transaction actually took place, the person he believed was a bank officer revealed that he was an undercover U.S. customs agent, who, with warrant in hand, seized the moon rock. The seizure was based on the grounds that the rock had not been declared upon entry back into the United States.
The first thing we did with the moon rock was to confirm it was the real thing through NASA’s lunar curator, and it was. This fact meant that for the first time in human history, agents seized an item brought back from outer space. And the country of ownership was Honduras.
For the next five years, the ownership of the moon rock was litigated in “United States of America vs. One Lucite Ball Containing Lunar Material” (see Geotimes, September 2002). In 2003, the presiding federal judge in Miami ruled in favor of the United States, and the moon rock was flown back to the Johnson Space Center for cleanup and then on to two presentations. First, it was given to the Honduran ambassador to the United States at the NASA headquarters building in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 22, 2003. In another formal presentation attended by NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe in Honduras, the Honduran moon rock was presented to Honduran President Ricardo Maduro on Feb. 28, 2004.
The Maltese moon rock
I am now a retired special agent and practicing law, while teaching for the University of Phoenix. Just a week before the Honduras moon rock presentation this year, I was contacted by one of my students about the theft and sale of Goodwill Moon Rocks (the topic I was teaching that week). The student told me that he had learned that Malta’s moon rock had also been stolen. This theft came as no surprise to me: I was convinced prior to this theft that just as the Honduras moon rock had been missing for years undetected, it was likely that other moon rocks also were missing.
Sure enough, the Maltese moon rock, with virtually no security protecting it, was simply taken from the Malta Museum of Natural History in Medina sometime around Feb. 18. I had been asked by individuals in Malta and elsewhere how I would go about securing the moon rock. I advised that the theft had all the markings of an amateur (the plaque which would have helped establish its value was not taken), and lacking evidence to identify the thief, I suggested offering an amnesty period for the perpetrator to return the rock — a suggestion echoed in the Malta Times. The Maltese moon rock is still missing, but I am sure that counterfeit variations of it will be sold for the next 20 years.
From Afghanistan to Romania
In addition to the Honduran and Maltese moon rocks, others are certainly missing. I have researched Goodwill Moon Rocks worldwide. It is likely, for example, that in 1995 when the National Museum of Afghanistan was looted, the Afghan Goodwill Moon Rock was stolen. In another part of the world, it is believed that the estate of Romania’s late dictator sold the Romanian moon rock around 1998. Further, my search on Goodwill Moon Rocks worldwide has revealed one disturbing truth: The whereabouts of only about two dozen moon rocks are readily discernable. I have thus come to believe that as many as half of the Goodwill Moon Rocks have been lost or stolen or are so poorly protected that they could be at risk.
It is sad to think that these gifts to the world from our brave astronauts more than 30 years ago are now in danger. It is now fair for America to ask its neighbors if they know where their moon rocks are.
Gutheinz, a retired senior special agent with NASA’s Office of Inspector General, is a criminal defense attorney licensed by 10 courts, including the United States Supreme Court. He is also an instructor at both the University of Phoenix and Alvin Community College.
"Moon Rocks for Sale!" Geotimes, September 2002
NASA Apollo Archive