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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, January 11, 2010

Missing moon rocks turn up


By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Lenny Klompus, senior adviser to the governor, displays the moon rocks. Officials were unable to locate them last year; they are worth an estimated $10 million.

Photos by ANDREW SHIMABUKU | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

A moon rock encased in transparent plastic.

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Moon rocks encased in clear plastic, with a state flag that was taken to the moon: Reported missing last year, they were found in a cabinet where they had been placed for safekeeping.

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Priceless lunar rocks from the first and last historic Apollo moon landing missions turned up last week during a routine inventory of gifts given to the governor's office over the years, a top adviser to governor Linda Lingle said.

The rocks, which were given to the people of Hawai'i as part of an international celebration of mankind's age-old quest to travel to the moon during the Richard Nixon administration, became news in October when a noted moon rock tracker and former NASA senior special agent said the whereabouts of Hawai'i's moon rocks was not known.

Joseph Gutheinz of Houston, who has been tracking moon rocks since the 1990s, said after making numerous inquiries to the governor's office, the Hawai'i State Archives, the Bishop Museum and the University of Hawai'i, he had found no one who could tell him the location of Hawai'i's moon rocks.

Gutheinz said in October that the governor's office had referred him to the state archives. After contacting the archives Gutheinz received an e-mail from a branch official saying the agency "not only does not have the moon rocks, but we have never had them!"

The e-mail added that the official had "no idea where they are."

Gutheinz said at the time he hoped the rocks had only been misplaced and that they would show up eventually. He didn't have his hopes up, though, because he said of 368 gift moon rocks that America has given to states and countries, only three dozen can be accounted for.

He said Hawai'i's moon rocks have an estimated black market value of $10 million.

On Friday, Lenny Klompus, senior adviser to the governor, said Hawai'i's moon rocks were never actually missing, but had merely been moved to a secure location. During an annual gift inventory on Thursday they were discovered in a locked cabinet.

"We went through every gift that's kept in these cabinets, and right where we thought (they) might be, in one of these last two secured cabinets, were in fact these moon rocks," Klompus said. "So, we knew they were here. We just weren't sure which cabinet they were in."

The rocks are encased in a pair of halved clear plastic globes that are each affixed to a wooden plaque.

The Apollo 11 globe has three tiny moon rocks from that mission. The Apollo 17 globe has a larger single rock taken from the final Apollo moon landing. Each example was mounted to a wooden plaque bearing a small Hawai'i flag that traveled to the moon.

"This flag of your state was carried to the moon and back by Apollo 11, and this fragment of the moon's surface was brought to the Earth by the crew of that first manned lunar landing," reads Hawai'i's Apollo 11 plaque.

Klompus said the moon rocks have been displayed on numerous occasions in the lobby of the governor's office. To keep exhibits fresh and interesting, Klompus said, various displays are periodically rotated and removed. That's why the moon rocks had not been seen for several months, he said.

Because the moon rocks have not been seen in awhile, they will probably be returned to public display before the governor's State of the State address on Jan. 25, Klompus said.

'GREAT NEWS'

Informed about the discovery of Hawai'i's moon rocks, Gutheinz was ecstatic.

"This is great news," said Gutheinz, 54, who teaches investigative techniques online for the University of Phoenix. He currently has 28 students studying missing moon rocks around the nation and the world.

"This makes my day."

Still, he was critical of the state's handling of its treasures. He said if $10 million in cash had been locked in a storage cabinet, state officials would know exactly where to find it.

"Not only are we talking about something that has a lot of historical significance which a moon rock does but we're talking about something that has a great deal of value. You must realize there are people who steal moon rocks. NASA has had moon rocks stolen from it, nations have had moon rocks stolen from them; they've been stolen from museums, they've been stolen from a safe at Johnson Space Center.

"So I'm glad they found the moon rocks. But they are not secure."

One of the problems with moon rocks is that state officials don't seem to be aware of their value, Gutheinz said. Moon rock samples collected from the Apollo missions are considered priceless, no matter how small, including lunar dust particles.

VALUE CONFUSION

NASA itself has seemed confused by the worth of a moon rock. Over the years, the agency has estimated the value of lunar mission moon rocks, if they could be purchased at any price, at $55 million an ounce (1970), to $1 million for 10 ounces (2003).

In 2004, the Associated Press reported that a 1.4 gram piece of moon rock stolen from the Museum of Natural History in Malta had an estimated value of $5 million.

Except for the flag and the wording, the stolen Malta moon rock was virtually identical to Hawai'i's Apollo 17 plaque.

Although Gutheinz's students do much of the missing moon rock investigative work, Gutheinz said he personally tried to track Hawai'i's moon rocks.

Because returning Apollo 11 Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins splashed down in Hawaiian waters and were taken in quarantine aboard the aircraft carrier USS Hornet to Pearl Harbor, Hawai'i enjoys a special place in the Apollo moon landing saga.

Klompus said the security of the Hawai'i moon rocks is about to be ramped up. For reasons he said he did not know, the valuable lunar specimens have never been registered with the state Foundation on Cultural Arts.

"We're about to do that," he said. "The foundation should have those, and have them numbered and put into their category of precious pieces."