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.