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Thursday, Dec. 17, 2009 06:46 pm

Discovering moon rocks in Illinois

I am a criminal justice graduate student whose professor assigns students the task of investigating and hunting down the whereabouts of the Apollo 11 and Apollo 17 moon rocks, given to the 50 states, Puerto Rico and the nations of the world. My professor at the University of Phoenix, Joseph Gutheinz, is a retired senior special agent for NASA’s Office of Inspector General who led an undercover sting operation known as Operation Lunar Eclipse, and in the process recovered the Honduras Goodwill Moon Rock, which had been offered to him for $5 million.

In November 1969, President Richard Nixon requested that NASA create displays containing lunar surface material and the flags of 135 nations, and all 50 states and Puerto Rico. Then he gave those displays and moon rocks out to the “people.” Between 1973-74 Presidents Nixon and Ford presented pieces of Apollo 17 moon rocks out in a similar fashion. The Apollo 17 moon rocks are Goodwill Moon Rocks upon the request of Apollo 17 Astronaut Harrison Schmitt that they be presented to the people of the world as a “goodwill” gesture; all of the Goodwill Moon Rocks are carved from one multi-colored mother rock that Harrison Schmitt actually picked up on the moon.

Most Apollo 11 moon rocks and Apollo 17 Goodwill Moon Rocks, which were given to the nations of the world, are classified as lost, missing, destroyed or stolen. For example, Ireland lost their Apollo 11 moon rocks to fire; Romania’s Goodwill Moon Rock was sold by the estate of the late communist dictator and Cyprus Goodwill Moon Rock was retained by an American and offered for sale in 2003, after the American ambassador to that country was assassinated in 1974.

After discovering New York’s Apollo 17 Goodwill Moon Rock, which is located in a high security vault at the New York State Museum in Albany, I wrote a newspaper column that exposed its plight, and what I perceive as a loss to the children who are denied access to it. Worse yet, New York’s Apollo 11 moon rock has not yet been found, and may be missing or worse.

I became curious to see whether other state museums proudly display pieces of history or hide them in a vault. Last week I e-mailed the Illinois State Museum in Springfield to see if the museum had the Apollo 11 and 17 moon rocks on display. I received an e-mail from Chris Widga, assistant curator of geology at Illinois Research and Collection Center, confirming the museum has in its collection both Apollo 11 and 17 official state moon rocks, though neither were then on display for the public to see. However we learned that, as of this week, following our inquiry, the moon rocks are now proudly displayed in the museum’s lobby. So Illinois State Museum is the exception to the rule, and may stand alone in doing justice to its official moon rock gifts received from President Nixon and from NASA.

Each rock, encased in a Lucite ball, is mounted to a plaque with the intended recipient’s flag, also flown to the moon or into space. The Apollo 11 and 17 missions are the first and last time man walked on the moon. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission. As someone who has hunted down these rare treasures with mixed results, I want to thank the state of Illinois for doing justice to its unique pieces of history, and encourage all citizens to go to the state museum and view them.

Lisa Moore of Bernie, Mo., graduated from University of Phoenix in September 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice administration and is currently working on a master’s in administration of justice and security.

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