What happened to the Silver State’s gift from President Nixon and the Apollo 17 astronauts?

When I was younger, I was fascinated with the idea of exploring outer space. Like many children of my generation I dreamed of becoming an astronaut. Granted, my goals and objectives have changed since then, but my fascination with our solar system and outer space has remained the same.

Now attending the University of Phoenix and working on my second degree, I found myself with an interesting assignment—to look into a mystery that has gone unsolved for years: What happened to the Goodwill Moon Rocks that were gifts from the American government to each of the 50 states, Puerto Rico, and 135 other nations in 1973 and ’74? More precisely, what happened to Nevada’s Goodwill Moon Rock?

Even with what I knew of the space program and its history, I had never heard of the Goodwill Moon Rocks. Sure, I remember going to many science museums and planetariums as a child and seeing the displays about the moon and samples of moon rocks. But I could not recall anything about a Goodwill Moon Rock. To begin my search for Nevada’s Goodwill Moon Rock, I began with a review of NASA’s Apollo Space Program.

The Apollo Program was the third in the series of human spaceflight programs undertaken by NASA between 1961 and 1975. Its goal was to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade and on July 20, 1969; this goal was accomplished when Neil Armstrong stepped out onto the lunar surface declaring “One small step for man. One giant leap for mankind.”

It was not until I began to look into Apollo 17’s mission to the moon, which occurred in 1972, that I found the true start of my investigation into the sad plight of the Goodwill Moon Rocks. This was the sixth and final in a series of missions to the lunar surface for the Apollo Program. Its objectives were simple—survey and collect samples from the Taurus-Littrow region of the moon. It was during their final walk on the moon a lunar sample was collected and dedicated by Mission Commander Eugene Cernan and Astronaut/pilot Harrison Schmitt in a gesture of goodwill to the peoples of the world. This sample would become known as the Goodwill Moon Rock.

The fragments from this sample were encased in Lucite and mounted to plaques with the recipient’s (nations/states/territory) flags also affixed. These flags were flown to the moon. President Nixon then initiated an effort to give the plaques to their respective heads of state beginning in March 1973. The thought behind this gift was that these treasures from the moon would be placed in museums, planetariums, or other facilities that would be accessible to the public for observation and preservation. President Nixon wanted the world to be able to share in the accomplishment of reaching the moon and wanted all nations and states to celebrate in this “giant leap” for all mankind. Unfortunately, this has not been the case.

Individuals cannot possess anything from the surface of the moon, such as moon rocks, pebbles, or core samples, recovered by NASA. These items are considered national treasures and as such are considered illegal to own. Of the 842 pounds of rock and dust that have been brought back from the moon by NASA, most are locked away in governmental research facilities where they are closely monitored. Many other samples have been loaned to schools, museums, and researchers. Some moon rocks, including the Goodwill Moon Rocks, were given away, not to individuals, but to nations, states and one territory. Unfortunately, many of these samples were not secured and have gone missing only to be sold to the highest bidder on the Internet or black market.

Joe Gutheinz, the professor at the University of Phoenix who gave this assignment to my class, is a retired Senior Special Agent for NASA’s Office of Inspector General. As a Special Agent he went undercover in Operation Lunar Eclipse in 1998 to recover the Honduras Goodwill Moon Rock, and since 2002 he has assigned University of Phoenix graduate students, such as myself, the task of hunting down Goodwill Moon Rocks around the world. He had been offered $5 million when he recovered the Honduras Goodwill Moon rock and estimates that Nevada’s Goodwill Moon Rock could most likely catch the same amount on the black market.

I am just one of several hundred University of Phoenix graduate students who have hunted for the Goodwill Moon Rocks worldwide, and of the 135 given to foreign Governments, 99 still have not been accounted for and are likely lost, misplaced or as in the case of Malta’s, stolen. While my class was going on we helped bring attention to the plight of Canada’s Goodwill Moon Rock, which caused it to be placed on display after 30 years.  Unfortunately, while this one tragedy was averted, our efforts uncovered 99 more.

As I continued my search for Nevada’s Goodwill Moon Rock, I became frustrated. Information regarding these rocks is limited. What was available focused on the recovery of one or two of the moon rocks that had been stolen and coincidentally found by my professor who issued this assignment. After a few weeks of e-mails and dead-end phone calls to various state agencies, museums, and planetariums, I had found nothing. Many of those I did have the opportunity to speak with had the same response, “The Goodwill what?”

As luck would have it, two curators, Crystal Van Dee of the Nevada State Museum in Las Vegas and Sheryl Hayes-Zorn of the Nevada Historical Society in Reno, were willing to assist in my search.  Finally, I thought I might be on to something. But alas, they only had vague ideas of where the Nevada Goodwill Moon Rock might be located. They did however, offer to continue to assist in my search and I thank them for the assistance they provided.

As my deadline for this assignment grew near, I began to think that a significant piece of Nevada’s history had been lost, possibly forever. At the last minute my two aforementioned contacts came through for me. They had asked the curator for the geology exhibits at the Nevada State Museum in Carson City, George Baumgardner, to contact me. He confirmed that Nevada’s Goodwill Moon Rock, although not presently on display, had been in the geology exhibit for some time and is indeed safe and in storage. He described it as “a plaque with a small Nevada flag.  He advised that the text states the flag went to the moon aboard Apollo XVII (Dec, 7-19, 1972), and it is from Taurus Littrow Valley of the Moon.” This is what I have been looking for. I had accomplished my assignment. Or, had I?

I was concerned that such a significant piece of Nevada and U.S. history was collecting dust in storage. With the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11’s historic landing on the moon upon us, and our renewed vision of returning to the moon in 2020, one would think it would be prominently displayed for all to see as a reminder of what we can accomplish if we set our minds to the task.

I immediately inquired if there was any chance it could be taken out of storage and placed back on display but was saddened to find out that due to staffing, budgetary, and time constraints, the state museum will not be able to put it back on display for the anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, or in the near future.

Although it is understandable that the state of the economy has affected all of us, it is still disheartening that this significant piece of history will remain in a closet somewhere collecting dust. I will continue to pursue getting Nevada’s Goodwill Moon Rock on display and hope that others may join in after reading this article. For now, unlike the fate of many of the Goodwill Moon rocks gifted, we know that Nevada’s piece of history is safe and secure.