Man’s search for missing moon rocks
“My students have found 78 moon rocks,” boasts Joseph Gutheinz Jr., faculty member for the University of Phoenix College of Criminal Justice and Security. Gutheinz heads what he calls the Moon Rock Recovery project and teaches a forensic investigation class at the University's Houston Campus where his students work on finding the missing rocks.
Most Americans don't know the history or significance of moon rocks. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to step foot on the moon. Because this was not only an accomplishment for the United States but also the human race, President Nixon decided to gift a moon rock to all 50 states and 135 nations. Again in 1972, Nixon did the same thing with the last manned mission to the moon, Apollo 17. These Apollo 17 moon rocks are referred to as the Goodwill Moon Rocks.
Due to many governments’ confusion about the importance of each moon rock and NASA’s poor inventory tracking, many of the moon rocks went missing for decades, according to Gutheinz.
In 1998, Gutheinz was a special agent for the NASA Office of Inspector General. At the time, “buying fake moon rocks was a common thing,” says Gutheinz, who has been searching for the missing rocks since 1998. “Con artists were telling elderly people, athletes and celebrities that moon rocks were extremely rare, which they are, and that they would sell them one for a price around $20,000.” Moon rocks, in reality, are priceless.
Gutheinz and his partners set up a sting called Operation Lunar Eclipse. They put a quarter-page ad in USA Today that read, “Moon rocks wanted. John’s estate sales.” “I took the calls and set up meetings in hopes of finding bogus moon rocks,” recalls Gutheinz.
One day, Gutheinz received a call from a man who claimed to have a genuine moon rock. It turns out he had the Honduras Goodwill Moon Rock. Months of meetings and phone calls transpired. Eventually Gutheinz and the moon rock seller settled on the price of $5 million. They caught the seller, returned the moon rock to Honduras and Gutheinz received the President’s Council on Integrity and Efficiency Career Achievement Award in 2000.
Since 2002, Gutheinz and his students have worked to track down and find lost or stolen moon rocks. “It’s a fun assignment that teaches my students real-world investigative skills,” says Gutheinz. “You could be searching for lost art or money and it would require the same skills.”
Gutheinz’s pride in his students’ work and the project’s progress is apparent when he says, “University of Phoenix has a better track record of recovering moon rocks than NASA does.”