Moonrocks might just be the most valuable commodity on Earth. No one in the Apollo program could have foreseen just how valuable they’d become and how elaborate the plots, counterplots, scams and stings to purchase and recover them would become.
Getting lunar samples back to Earth was a priority from the very start. One of the first things Neil Armstrong did after climbing down the ladder and bouncing around was to pocket a specimen. The missions that followed Apollo 11 returned a wide variety of Moonrock samples and opened a brand-new field, lunar geology. All in all, the Apollo program returned more than 842 pounds of lunar rocks and soil.
What kind of rocks? Some of the returned samples show signs of having been melted, especially the ones near impact craters, implying both volcanoes and collisions. Quite a few samples are brecciated, broken fragments of minerals and rocks cemented into sedimentary rock, probably as a result of multiple impacts. This supports the giant-impact hypothesis, which says that the Moon was created through the impact of a very large body with the Earth. The fragments flew away and ultimately coalesced into the Moon. In other words, the Moon isn’t made of cheese. It’s made of Earth. Which is why so many Earth minerals also appear on the Moon.
The Apollo 11 astronauts returned some 48 pounds of rocks; Apollo 12, 76 pounds; Apollo 14, 94 pounds; Apollo 15, 169 pounds; Apollo 16, 210 pounds; and Apollo 17, a whopping 243 pounds. Following the Apollo 11 mission and again after Apollo 17, President Richard Nixon directed NASA to create individual displays of lunar material to be shared with some 135 countries, every U.S. state and Puerto Rico. The Moonrocks were carefully wrapped and placed in containers to prevent contamination, then sent to a storage facility at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Most are still there today. But not all. Almost half of all lunar samples have been stolen or are missing.
Wikipedia says that approximately 180 Moonrocks are unaccounted for. Missouri’s is safely in the Missouri State Museum in Jefferson City. Now, that is. It was declared lost in 2010; former Senator Kit Bond, governor of Missouri when the Apollo 17 Goodwill Moonrock was gifted to the state, said he had no recollection of receiving a Moonrock. The rock was later found among Bond’s possessions and returned to the state. Bond was one of a handful of former governors who ‘misplaced’ their states’ lunar samples; the others were the governors of Arkansas, Colorado, Hawaii and West Virginia.
The Irish Apollo 11 rock really was tossed in a dump in 1977 following a fire in the Dublin observatory where the rock was displayed. A student poking through the rubble found it. Malta’s was flat-out stolen in 2004. Giving Moonrocks to dictators is also not a great idea. Those given to Generalissimo Francisco Franco of Spain; Nicolae Ceaușescu, Romania; Muammar al-Qaddafi, Libya; and Anastasio Somoza Garcia, Nicaragua, all vanished. The story goes that Nicaragua’s Moonrock was swiped by a Costa Rican mercenary soldier-turned Contra rebel, traded to a Baptist missionary, then sold to a Las Vegas casino mogul who displayed it at his Moonrock Cafe before squirreling it away in a safety deposit box. In any event, that Apollo 11 Moonrock was found and returned to the people of Nicaragua in 2012.
In 1998, a federal law enforcement undercover operation was created to identify and arrest people selling bogus Moonrocks. This sting operation, known as Operation Lunar Eclipse, ran a quarter-page advertisement in USA Today asking for Moonrocks. The operation netted fakes, of course, but also the actual Honduras Moonrock. This Moonrock had been given to Honduras by Nixon, fallen into private hands, and was on sale for $5 million. Billionaire and one-time presidential candidate H. Ross Perot promised to ante up the $5 million. He never had to pay, of course; the feds swooped in and nabbed the rock and sellers. It’s now safely displayed at the Centro Interactivo Chiminike in beautiful downtown Tegucigalpa.
In 2002, three enterprising NASA interns stole a 600-lb. safe containing Moonrocks from the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, hauled it to a motel room and busted it open. The mastermind, a Utah student named Thad Roberts, had contacted a mineralogist in Belgium to sell the rocks. (And to have sex with his girlfriend on the rocks – sex on the Moon!) The spooked mineralogist promptly contacted the FBI, who emailed Roberts posing as the mineralogist’s sister-in-law. The price? Up to $5,000 a gram, which put the total value of the rocks at about $21 million. That’s closer to $40 million in 2023. Roberts was nabbed and sentenced to eight years in federal prison for this caper, and for swiping dinosaur bones from a Utah museum. He’s since written a book, Einstein’s Intuition: Visualizing Nature in Eleven Dimensions; had a book written about his escapades, Sex on the Moon: The Amazing Story Behind the Most Audacious Heist in History; had a documentary made about his adventures; is a public speaker; and espouses theories on quantum gravity as a ‘philosopher of physics’ for a private think tank. Who says crime doesn’t pay?
How much is a genuine Moon Rock worth today? Estimates vary, but up to $10 million isn’t unreasonable. That’s for a rock smaller than your thumb and weighing less than one ounce.