A memoir: A decade-plus of tracking lunar larceny

by Joseph Richard Gutheinz Jr.
Thursday, January 5, 2012

Apollo 11's Neil Armstrong opens a sample return container during Extra-Vehicular Activity (EVA) training in Houston, Texas. NASA

A moon rock brought back by Apollo 16 astronauts. NASA

The first Apollo 11 sample return container arrives at Ellington Air Force Base in Houston. NASA, scan by Ed Hengeveld

In the back alleys of the world’s capitals and in the ballrooms of presidential palaces exists a black market that preys on the imagination of some and the greed of others. These black-market items were neither carved nor painted; in fact, they are not of this Earth. They traveled 400,000 kilometers via six Apollo missions and three unmanned Soviet missions to and from the moon.

I have had a front row view of this lunar larceny for more than a decade. On the wall in my office hangs a series of photographs that tells the story of Operation Lunar Eclipse, which led to the recovery of the Honduras Apollo 17 Goodwill Moon Rock. It was the first law enforcement recovery of an object brought back to Earth by man. The rock was offered to me in 1998 for $5 million, when I was an undercover senior special agent with NASA’s Office of Inspector General.

Next to the NASA Exceptional Service Medal I earned for leading that operation is an autographed picture of astronaut Eugene Cernan, the last man on the moon, who brought back the Apollo 17 Goodwill Moon Rock. Above his picture is a picture of me standing next to former Honduras Ambassador Mario Canahuati and former NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe; it was taken when NASA returned the Honduras Apollo 17 Goodwill Moon Rock to that country on Sept. 22, 2003.

On my bookshelves are messages and published works from my graduate students who, since 2002, have hunted down stolen or misplaced moon rocks all over the world as part of my Moon Rock Project at the University of Phoenix. And above those files and records is a picture of me standing next to a legendary billionaire, a household name who wishes to remain nameless, who once helped me find a moon rock. All he wanted in return for his selfless efforts was to shake my hand.

In 1998, when all this began, I could not have imagined that this single case would impact my life for years to come.

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