From one void to another: NASA searches for missing moon rocks

Sunday, January 22nd 2012. | Science News

NASA searches for missing moon rocksHOUSTON — A long-lost one in Colorado resurfaced at the home of a former governor, and another one in Arkansas was found among former President Bill Clinton’s memorabilia. Somebody swiped one from a museum in the island country of Malta, and somebody else who got his hands on one in Honduras tried to sell it in Miami to an undercover federal agent.

Rare art? Priceless jewels? Nothing so terrestrial.

All of these items were literally out of this world: moon rocks, meteorite samples and other so-called astromaterials that were lent to researchers by NASA or were offered as gifts to U.S. and foreign leaders.

Hundreds of moon rocks and other space objects have been lost, destroyed, stolen or remain unaccounted for, some of which U.S. astronauts and presidents presented to dignitaries around the country and the world decades ago and others that NASA officials lent for education, research and public display. The objects survived in outer space for ages and include some of the first samples ever returned from another planetary body, but after just a few short years on Earth they met the same fate as a set of car keys or a 29-cent postcard.

Last month, NASA’s inspector general, Paul Martin, determined that 517 moon rocks and other astromaterial samples that were lent between 1970 and 2010 had been lost or stolen. A report issued by Martin’s office found that 11 of the 59 researchers in the Houston and Washington areas who were audited could not account for all of the samples NASA had lent them, or the agency found other discrepancies, including researchers who had items that according to agency records either did not exist or had been lent to others.

Spokesmen for NASA in Washington and Houston said the losses reported by the inspector general represented only a small fraction of the tens of thousands of astromaterial samples the space agency had lent to scientists around the world for more than 40 years.

“Although such losses at any time are regrettable, and NASA agrees with the IG report that continuing to improve certain procedures could reduce the rate at which they occur, the benefits to science of making these samples available for study have vastly outweighed the tiny risk of loss,” a NASA spokesman in Houston, William Jeffs, said in a statement.

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