May 23, 2012

Moon chips from Vegas casino mogul sent to NASA

The Associated Press

LAS VEGAS — It's been a long, strange trip for what appears to be several tiny chips of lunar rock that found their way into a casino mogul's hands after being collected by the first men on the moon.

click image to enlarge

Lawyer Richard Wright speaks about a plaque containing moon rocks in his law office at Wright, Stanish & Winckler Friday, May 18, 2012, in Las Vegas. The plaque and moon rocks were originally presented as a gift to the people of Nicaragua by President Nixon. (AP Photo/Las Vegas Review-Journal, Ronda Churchill)

AP

A container of moon rocks and a small Nicaraguan flag are shown at the office of lawyer Richard Wright Friday, May 18, 2012, in Las Vegas. The plaque and moon rocks were originally presented as a gift to the people of Nicaragua by President Nixon. (AP Photo/Las Vegas Review-Journal, Ronda Churchill)

AP

Additional Photos Below

Tales of lunar rocks through the years

The saga of lunar rock traveling from the first moon landing in 1969 to the Las Vegas Strip in 1987 and back to NASA in 2012 recalls other moon rock stories. Here are a few:

IRISH DESTRUCTION: Investigators think a sample given to Ireland was buried in a landfill with debris after fire destroyed an observatory in 1977.

CASINO MAGNATE: If they are authentic, four tiny chips of moon rock given by then-President Richard Nixon to former Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Garcia would have been pilfered by a Costa Rican mercenary soldier-turned Contra rebel, traded to a Baptist missionary for unknown items, then sold to a Las Vegas casino mogul who displayed them at his Moon Rock Cafe before squirreling them away in in a safety deposit box.

MALTA THEFT: In Malta, a Goodwill Moon Rock was stolen in May 2004 from the unguarded Museum of Natural History in Mdina. But the thief left the Maltese flag and plaque that authenticated the sample as real. The sample hasn't been recovered.

ROMANIAN AUCTION: Moon rock hunter Joe Gutheinz's students found evidence that the estate of executed former Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu may have auctioned that country's Apollo 17 Goodwill Moon Rock. Romania's Apollo 11 Moon Rock is at the National History Museum in Bucharest.

DEADLIEST CATCH: Coleman Anderson, a former crab fishing boat captain on TV's "Deadliest Catch" show, claims ownership of Alaska's Apollo 11 moon rocks. He filed a lawsuit saying he found them in the refuse after a 1973 fire at the Alaska Transportation Museum.

PRICELESS OR WORTHLESS?

Joe Gutheinz, a retired NASA investigator and moon rock hunter, equates the tiniest samples of moon rock to the massive Hope diamond. It weighs 45.52 carats and is estimated to be worth more than $200 million.

Gutheinz says lunar samples are almost impossible to sell, but investigators think a missing Apollo 17 sample may have sold in the Middle East in 1998 for between $5 million and $10 million.

Only once has there been a legitimate sale of moon rocks.

Gutheinz says Sotheby's in 1993 auctioned a 0.2 gram sample of rock from the first of three Soviet Union-era moon probes.

It fetched $442,500.

RARE FINDS:

There are more diamonds on Earth than moon rocks.

American astronauts collected about 842 pounds of lunar rock in six missions between Apollo 11 in 1969 and Apollo 17 in 1972.

Soviet cosmonauts collected about 300 grams of rock, or about two-thirds of a pound.

The U.S. distributed 270 moon rock samples in the 1970s as a goodwill gesture to countries around the world. States received 100 samples and territories received six. The United Nations received a sample from the Apollo 11 mission.

Retired NASA investigator Joe Gutheinz says 160 samples given to other nations are missing. If the Nicaragua sample is proved genuine, Gutheinz says that number will be 159.

States are missing 18 Apollo 11 samples and six Apollo 17 rocks.

Apollo 11 samples were rice-sized chips, amounting to 0.05 grams.

Apollo 17 samples were single stones, weighing 1.14 grams.

If they're real, they were plucked from the lunar surface by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, given by then-President Richard Nixon to former Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle, pilfered by a Costa Rican mercenary soldier-turned Contra rebel, traded to a Baptist missionary for unknown items, then sold to a flamboyant Las Vegas casino owner who squirreled them away in a safety deposit box.

Now, more than 2½ years after Bob Stupak's death, an attorney for his estate has sent to NASA officials in Houston a tabletop display featuring the four gray chips the size of grains of rice. They're magnified in a Lucite dome about as big around as a U.S. 50-cent piece set with a small blue and white Nicaraguan flag. Combined, the chips weigh 0.05 grams.

Renee Juhans, NASA inspector general executive officer, confirmed Tuesday that the agency was "taking steps to authenticate" the display it received from attorney Richard Wright. Juhans declined to say what would happen after that.

Wright said he expects that if the chips are authentic, they'll be returned to the people of the Central American country. If not, he said they should be sent back to him.

"I told them it was either Stupak's or Nicaragua's," said Wright, who said he counseled Stupak when ownership questions were raised more than a decade ago not to try to sell or auction the display.

The tiny rocks can be considered priceless or worthless, said Joe Gutheinz, a retired NASA investigator and moon rock hunter who has spent decades on a quest to find 160 missing moon rock samples around the world.

"In a sense, they're worthless because you can't sell them," Gutheinz said by telephone this week from his law office in Friendswood, Texas. "But for people who love space, you can't put a price on it."

They're part of a limited supply of about 842 pounds of rock collected by U.S. astronauts in six missions between Apollo 11 in 1969 and Apollo 17 in 1972. The Soviet Union collected about 300 grams of rock, or about two-thirds of a pound, during unmanned probes to the moon.

Gutheinz said the U.S. distributed 270 moon rock samples in the 1970s as a goodwill gesture to countries around the world. States received 100 samples and territories received six. The United Nations received a sample from the Apollo 11 mission.

NASA has conceded it lost track of some of the 26,000 samples of moon rock and other space material loaned to researchers and museums. The agency inspector general said last December that more than 500 pieces were reported missing since 1970.

The tiny chips that made their way to Stupak by 1987 apparently were a gift to Nicaragua.

Stupak was a wheeler, dealer and gambler of the first order. He won a $1 million wager on Super Bowl XXIII and a World Series of Poker championship bracelet, both in 1989; nearly died in a motorcycle crash in 1995; and lost a bid in 2006 to become lieutenant governor of Nevada.

For a time, Wright said, the lunar stones were displayed at the Moon Rock Cafe at Bob Stupak's Vegas World casino, which featured a rocket ship logo and big sign declaring "Sky's the Limit." The display went into storage after Stupak replaced the place with the tallest structure on the Las Vegas Strip, the 1,149-foot Stratosphere tower resembling the iconic Space Needle in Seattle.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

A plaque containing moon rocks and a small Nicaraguan flag are shown at the office of lawyer Richard Wright Friday, May 18, 2012, in Las Vegas. The plaque and moon rocks were originally presented as a gift to the people of Nicaragua by President Nixon. (AP Photo/Las Vegas Review-Journal, Ronda Churchill)

  


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