On December 13, 1972, on the surface of the moon, the astronauts of Apollo 17 paused in their lunar ramblings to pick up a chunk of rock about 10 centimeters long. After showing to their video camera, they brought the rock back to Earth, where it was named Sample 70017 and broken into hundreds of fragments, 366 of which were each embedded in plastic, glued to a plaque, and presented by the United States to the leaders of the world’s nations as a symbol of peace.
A new piece of narrative journalism published at The Atavist by Joe Kloc tells the story of that 10-centimeter rock and all its far-flung daughters, which, over the last 40 years, have variously disappeared in coups, been forgotten on museum shelves, or made their way by mysterious avenues to the black market. At the heart of the story is Joseph Gutheinz, a former NASA special agent driven by a kind of mania to return stolen moonrocks to their places of honor—even if few others see the value of his quest. I asked Kloc explain the power of these tiny fragments of the moon.
VG: What is it about moonrocks that exert this pull for some people?
JK: The answer isn’t the same for everybody. For [Gutheinz], I think it is about the time in history they capture. He sees them as a way to inspire kids to get back to that time, to become dreamer-scientist-explorers. And then the people who try to sell them for millions [on the black market] obviously want money. But in each case, the idea behind the desire is ultimately that sort of intangible fascination we all have with the moon.
But these particular moon rocks—the fragments presented to the nations of the world in 1973—seem bizarrely at odds with that kind of sacred viewpoint. They were a PR stunt, despite the stated purpose of giving them as emblems of peace. That they are embedded in plastic and glued to plaques makes them unlikely objects of worship.
Maybe the best way to think about it is that the moon missions were always two things: on the one hand a Cold War-sized political power play, on the other a monumental—perhaps the most monumental—human achievement. Now the rocks embody that same positive-negative duality. On the one hand they are a Cold War power play that some want to sell for millions; on the other, they are this relic of one of humanity’s greatest achievements.
It’s important to note, though, that Gutheinz never once said to me anything about the negative side of the moon missions—the Cold War side. I brought it up to him once in his office, and it just didn’t seem to interest him. He was a little kid watching the moon missions, and I’m sure that had something to do with it.
What do you mean?
I brought it up in the context that some of these moon rocks were lost because of instability the U.S. created in certain countries by fighting proxy wars with the Soviet Union. I pointed out that the same reason that drove us to hand them out (the Cold War) caused them to get lost in some cases. And he nodded, certainly recognizing the humor in it, and agreed…but then he moved on to talking about something else. It’s not that he avoided it; it was just not something that seemed to even occur to him to flesh out.
Ideas like honor have a real old-school appeal to him. As I say in the piece, he is a practical romantic. That is the description that popped into my head five minutes after meeting him. I think he needs to be that way to do what he does. So few people really care about these rocks—so many of them are misplaced in museums, lost in storage, or even sold to collectors—that he is fighting an uphill battle largely alone.
He’s kind of this lone ranger, going around trying to restore the virtue of an endeavor that was just paying lip service to virtue to begin with but that wound up being profound.
He is a complete lone ranger, yeah. I think that really hits it on the head.
This story is about value, in many ways. It’s about how we value the moon rocks themselves, of course—NASA says they are priceless, the black market sellers say millions. Gutheinz says millions. But scratch all that: I think the central emotion of this story is a sort of romance that Gutheinz is responding to, an intangible value embodied by the rocks…a magical realism that happens to be true.
You can read the whole story—including Apollo astronaut Harrison Schmitt’s thoughts about what it felt like to pick up Sample 70017, what Joseph Gutheinz was doodling in court the moment he decided to start recovering the lost rocks, and the telegrams that revealed the fate of Cyprus’s moonrock—here. The Atavist is a unique publishing platform that publishes long-form journalism digitally, and you can purchase The Case of the Missing Moon Rocks in a variety of formats.