From the final frontier to the Final Frontier State, Alaska’s long-lost moon rocks have returned to the state museum in Juneau, reports The Associated Press. The Alaska State Museum will be displaying the state’s missing moon rocks for the first time since 1973, according to The Alaska Dispatch. Nearly 40 years ago when they disappeared, officials held out little hope that the rocks would ever be returned.
The Anchorage Daily News notes that the state’s long-lost moon rocks vanished after an arson fire in 1973. The rocks were originally part of 48.5 pounds of material gathered by Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in 1969. Until now, the Daily News says, the whereabouts of the rocks was a mystery.
The AP reports that officials revealed the missing moon rocks at a news conference Thursday, putting on display the small moon rocks encased in a ping pong ball-size acrylic glass ball and mounted on a walnut plaque above a miniature Alaska flag. This flag traveled with Mr. Aldrin and Mr. Armstrong to the moon aboard Apollo 11. President Richard Nixon reportedly gave the plaque to Alaska Governor Keith Miller in 1969, but it disappeared after an arsonist set fire to the museum in 1973 and only recently reappeared when Coleman Anderson made a claim of ownership in 2010, arguing that the state had abandoned the moon rocks.
The Alaska Attorney General’s Office, which represented the museum in the case, disputed Mr. Anderson’s claim. Assistant Attorney General Neil Slotnick, the museum’s attorney, argued that how the individual came to possess the rocks did not convey ownership of the moon rocks.
“He claimed that after the fire he found the plaque in the rubble and debris at the museum site, and that he saved it from destruction,” Mr. Slotnick said, according to the Juneau Empire.
Mr. Slotnick was eventually successful in returning the long-lost moon rocks to the Final Frontier State.
“We were eventually able to persuade the plaintiff that he should dismiss this case,” the museum’s attorney said, according to The AP.
The AP notes that the state had plenty of witnesses who were willing to attest that the moon rocks survived the man-made fire and were not indistinguishable from the burnt debris.
Mr. Anderson’s attorney, Daniel P. Harris, was unhappy that his client did not receive a reward for returning the moon rocks.
“He recovered those moon rocks. Without him, who knows where they could be or whether they would exist today. But in the end, the state was unwilling to pay any reward,” Mr. Harris told The AP from Seattle. “It just was not worth Coleman’s time or money to fight the state on that.”
Mr. Anderson was originally able to secure the moon rocks because his stepfather was the museum’s curator in 1973. Mr. Anderson reportedly saw the plaque hidden by burnt materials and took it into his possession.
While there is no evidence that Mr. Anderson ever tried to sell the moon plaque on the black market, moon rocks are a valuable commodity. The Daily Mail reported in September 2011 that an Apollo 17 moon rock lost for 30 years and valued at approximately $10 million was found in files belonging to former President Bill Clinton. The rock, the Daily notes, was one of 50 presented to each state after the Apollo 17 moon mission. At the time, NASA said that finding these plaques was a difficult, if not impossible, job.
The rock, which had been missing since at least 1980, was found in old gubernatorial papers. An archivist discovered the rock in a box archived as “Arkansas flag plaque.”
While the moon rock from the 1972 space mission has a black market value of around $10 million, it is unclear what the black market value of Alaska’s recently-returned moon rocks is.