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Interplanetary art smuggler sought by PBS detectives for moon mystery questioning

Was a tiny art-etched wafer like this one smuggled to the Moon? "History Detectives" investigates on June 21. (PBS)
June 15, 2010

— In November 1969, a plot was launched to smuggle potentially priceless works of art by the likes of Warhol and Rauschenberg out of the country. Despite it being carried out during one of the century's most widely watched events, the art was lifted in secret and deposited a quarter of a million miles away, where only a dozen men would ever visit.

Now, four decades later, detectives are hoping the public can help identify the individual at the center of this caper: the person who sent six artists' miniaturized masterpieces to the moon.

A man known simply as "John F."

The "Moon Museum" mystery is not the next case to be profiled on "America's Most Wanted." Rather, it is part of the June 21st season premiere of "History Detectives" on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).

"I will never think of the moon in the same way again," said Gwendolyn Wright, the host of "Detectives" and an architecture professor at Columbia University. "This case truly surprised me. What I thought seemed impossible, at first, became an amazing story of art winning its place alongside science, and some playful innovation that is sure to intrigue history buffs, space lovers and art aficionados alike."


"History Detectives" first picks up on John F.'s trail with a visit to Jade Dellinger, a Florida art curator who purchased in an online auction a tiny (three-quarters by one-half by 1/40-inch) ceramic "mini-canvas" with six separate simple artworks etched onto it. Based on the information he was able to glean from the sale's description and from further research online, the ceramic chip, once the possession of an engineer who worked at Bell Laboratories in the 1960s, was a duplicate of a collaborative art project.

"My understanding is that Andy Warhol contributed," says Dellinger as part of a conversation with Wright during the show. "Robert Rauschenberg contributed and four other artists."

Wright, after some online research of her own, learns that the wafer was organized by another of the artists, Forrest "Frosty" Myers, who conspired to send the first pieces of art to another celestial body.

"Going the Moon was the biggest thing in our generation," Myers explains to Wright. "My idea was to get six great artists together and make it a tiny little museum that would be on the Moon."

Forrest "Frosty" Myers talks with "History Detectives" host Gwendolyn Wright about his "Moon Museum." (PBS)

Myers, a renowned sculptor, contributed a "linked symbol" that he called "Interconnection." David Novros, an early minimalist painter, and John Chamberlain, best known for creating sculptures from old car parts, provided drawings that looked like circuitry.

Swedish pop sculptor Claes Oldenburg shared one of his signature interpretations of Mickey Mouse for the project. Robert Rauschenberg, famous for his found-object collage works, drew a single straight line.

"Andy Warhol decided he would do his signature, which was an 'A' and a 'W,'" recounts Myers. Warhol's inscription however, when viewed from a certain angle, appears to be a rocket or a part of male anatomy. "He was being the terrible bad boy."

The original works were drawn on standard-size sheets of paper. To shrink them to chip size, Myers worked with an artist-engineer collaborative called Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), which in turn put him in contact with Fred Waldhauer, an engineer at Bell Labs.

Waldhauer, using a process similar to that used to create telephone circuits, reduced the sketches and imprinted them on to a thin ceramic wafer. According to Myers, 16 to 20 of the chips were produced.

"At the time, this was state-of-the-art engineering," says Myers.

A.O.K. All Systems Are Go

The wafer created, Myers next challenge was getting it to the Moon. He contacted NASA but they expressed little interest.

"They never said 'no,'" Myers explains, "I just couldn't get them to say anything."

That's when Myers' "Moon Museum" went underground.

Waldhauer told Myers that he knew an engineer working at Grumman Aircraft, which was building the lunar modules for NASA. That engineer, whose name was only known to Waldhauer, could secretly stow the Moon Museum under the thermal blankets covering one of the legs of "Intrepid," the spacecraft set to land on the Moon with the Apollo 12 crew in November 1969.

"The guy said immediately, 'Yeah, I can do this,'" explains Myers.

Now a cloak-and-dagger caper, Myers needed a means to know if indeed his chip made it onboard.

Forrest Myers displays the Western Union telegram he received on Nov. 12, 1969 that was signed by "John F." (PBS)

The telegram arrived Nov. 12, 1969, just two days before the second lunar landing mission was to launch.

"Your On 'A.O.K. All System Are Go" (sic) the Western Union-delivered message read. It was signed "John F."

"Then there was cause for celebration," says Myers. "We went to the bars and opened some champagne."

"I haven't thought of the Moon the same since," he says.

Who is John F?

The question, as Wright explains on "History Detectives," is who was John F.? Only Waldhauer knew who he was.

"Fred's passed away," Myers explains to Wright.

To try to learn the identity of the man who smuggled the first art to the Moon, Wright reached out to Apollo 12 lunar module pilot Alan Bean, who after returning from the Moon chose to become an artist himself.

Apollo 12 astronaut-turned-artist Alan Bean inspects the "Moon Museum" with "History Detectives'" Gwendolyn Wright. (PBS)

"This is news to me," says the astronaut on the show. "I am not aware of this chip going with us."

Of course, given the way the chip was said to have been stowed, there was no reason for the crew to know. And Bean admits that of the hundreds of people that worked in and around the lunar module readying it for flight, he didn't know most of their names.

John F. also had good reason to keep his identity secret.

"I would say that John F., if this is a truthful thing, would be risking his whole career, what he's worked for all his life," remarks Bean.

But was John F.'s actions so unusual? Was he the only person to secretly stow something aboard?

"There were small personal items that the fellows put in between the [thermal] blankets on the spacecraft," reveals Richard Kupczyk, Grumman's launch pad foreman. Family photographs, for example, were tucked in between layers of insulation on the lunar module.

"Never, ever was there anything that was done to the spacecraft that would be a safety issue," he quickly adds. "Was it wrong? Yes. But we were caught up into this thing and we were good, and we knew it, and we left our mark."

That others at Grumman were doing the same as John F. makes it likely that the Moon Museum is indeed on the Moon, says Kupczyk.

But a check of the Grumman yearbook that listed all the engineers who worked there at the time reveals only two men with the initials 'JF,' and neither claims Kupczyk had access to the spacecraft.

Kupczyk believes the name may have been borrowed.

"When I read the telegraph and I saw the way it was written, the first thing that jumped into my mind was the fellow who started it all, JFK. So John F. Kennedy jumped into my mind as a pseudonym, maybe," he says.

Will the real John F. please stand up?

Faced with no other leads to John F., "History Detectives" has turned for the first time to its audience in the hopes that someone watching might solve the mystery.

"So, if you were John F., or you know someone who you think could have been John F., please let us know," says Wright.

Click to enlarge and view in a new, pop-up window. (PBS)

Updates on the search for John F. will be posted to the "History Detectives" website.

The case of the "Moon Museum" will air on Monday, June 21 at 9:00 p.m. EDT on PBS, along with two other space history-related investigations.

In "Satelloon," professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania Tukufu Zuberi tracks a scrap of metallic Mylar that could be part of an early U.S. satellite balloon. In "Space Boot," Elyse Luray, an art historian, tries on a jury-rigged ski boot with a magnetic metal brick bolted to the bottom that may have been a NASA prototype.

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