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The Moon Rock Con

by Joseph Richard Gutheinz, Jr, J.D.
Retired NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG)
Senior Special Agent

In 1972, something important happened in America, we stopped going to the Moon. Prior to that and for three years, 1969-1972, NASA landed 12 astronauts on the Moon and recovered 843 pounds of moon rock and dirt. These lunar samples are each so unique that from simple tests they can be identified not only as lunar in nature, but the location from which the sample were taken can also be determined.

The Soviet Union, sent three unmanned probes to the Moon, 1970-1976, which recovered and returned lunar samples using their lunar robotic landers. Though there are additional lunar samples recovered from meteorite deposits, especially from the Sahara Desert, Antarctica and Chile's unique Atacama desert, these samples have all the tell tale signs of having been exposed to high temperatures upon entry into Earth's atmosphere, and though valuable, are considerably less so than samples brought back from the Moon.

The United States and the Soviet Union, now Russia, have both treated their lunar recoveries as national treasures, loaning out samples to museums and schools for exhibition and to laboratories for study.

Predicated on the rarity of lunar samples, con-men sell phony replicas world wide, a trade I once was involved in interdicting as a NASA OIG Senior Special Agent. The con preys on the fact that moon rocks are heavily controlled, so would be buyers often are led to believe they are buying illegal moon rocks of enormous value.

As the transactions are often perceived as illegal in nature, once the con-man convinces the buyer of the truthfulness of his/her acquisition no further inquiry is usually made, and so the buyer places his/her ordinary rock in a display case or safe, and looks on it lovingly from time to time.

The reason why the con is effective is because the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia did such a poor job protecting their samples. Moon rocks and dirt were sent through ordinary mail and lost; tested to oblivion; given away to foreign and sometimes suspect governments as gifts; ineffectively recovered upon return to Earth and stolen.

The thefts were so easy that they border on being comical, such as the theft of a 600 pound safe from Johnson Space Center, containing possibly hundreds of millions of dollars of moon rocks.

Further, when the Soviet Union broke-up, Russia which could not account for all of its nuclear weapons, now was unable to account for all of its lunar samples. With former Soviet states and Warsaw Pact nations each having samples, and no doubt the Russian Mafia as well, this in addition to the American accountability issues, created the myth, partially based in fact, about black market sales of moon rocks, and the con took root.

Today, con-men sell their phony moon rocks at fashionable parties, to collectors, on internet auctions and to foreign buyers. Law enforcement has attempted to match these criminals in well publicized ways such as through undercover sting operations and by monitoring the Internet and online auctions.

Someday, moon rocks will be returned from the Moon in such quantity that ordinary people can own and possess them. Until then if the deal sounds dishonest or too good to be true, it probably is.

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For ten years, Joseph Gutheinz was a Senior Special Agent for NASA's Office of Inspector General (OIG). In 1998, Gutheinz was an Undercover Case Agent for Operation Lunar Eclipse, to seize a moon rock presented to the people of Honduras that was smuggled back into the U.S. for sale. Today, he is a trial attorney who now assists other law offices, individuals, and businesses as an attorney and consultant.