Missing Moon Rocks

An internal review said the space agency doesn’t keep track of the (now) irreplaceable artifacts.

The American space program was riding high when the astronauts from the Apollo missions returned from our planet’s only natural satellite with samples of moon rock. NASA lent out these samples to observatories and research facilities for experimentation and observation – I even remember my high school science teacher showing me a moon rock in class – but after a story came out in 2010 from a Delaware institution’s large sample being lost, NASA performed an investigation on where all its moon rocks had gone. The report from NASA’s inspector general released admitted that many of the moon samples are lost forever and the agency needed to keep better records.

NASA has lent more than 26,000 to museums and scientists over the years. The inspector general audited a quarter of these samples, and reported that more than 500 have either been lost or stolen. 19 percent of the recipient’s in question could not locate the samples, either because they were lost, they had been destroyed or lent to other institutions. Some of these samples can never be gained again, including 22 meteorites and two comet samples from an operation that retrieved them from a comet as it passed by.

In other cases, one scientist admitted to possessing 9 samples he borrowed more than 35 years ago. Others kept samples for 16 or more years after they had finished working with them. Even worse, some scientists said they held onto moon samples that they had never performed any experiments on at all.

NASA’s report doesn’t mean that it will stop lending out moon rocks, but the agency plans to adopt specific measures to track and keep accurate records of where its samples are located. I imagine that NASA will start checking in with these scientists to return the rocks after they are used, and start tracking them with bar codes or another tracking method to keep them all straight.

These rocks are difficult to replace, now that we haven’t traveled to the Moon since 1972 and are likely not to return since the space shuttles are retired from service. Crap, we’re not going to get any more moon rocks any time soon.

SAMPLES STORED IN NITROGEN TO MIMIC CONDITIONS ON THE MOON

  • The main repository for the Apollo moon rocks is the ultra-secure Lunar Sample Building at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
  • There is a smaller collection at Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.
  • The samples are stored in nitrogen to mimic conditions on the moon and keep them free of moisture.
  • The Apollo 15, 16, and 17 missions brought back 2,415 samples weighing 382 kg.
  • The three Russian Luna spacecraft returned with an additional 0.32 kg of samples.
  • In 1972, President Richard Nixon sent moon rocks to 135 foreign heads of state, the 50 U.S. states and its provinces as a goodwill gesture
  • In 2002 three young Nasa interns stole dozens of samples from the Houston repository but were arrested as they tried to sell them to an undercover FBI agent

An Apollo astronaut digs for samples (right) and President Bill Clinton shows off a sample of moon rock given to him in 1999

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 What was most significant about the lunar voyage was not that men set foot on the moon but that they set eye on the earth.

Norman Cousins


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