Several long-lost moon rocks were handed over to the State of Alaska on Thursday in Anchorage. The rocks were missing for about 4 decades. When they were found, they became the center of a legal battle. Now they’re heading back to the Alaska State Museum in Juneau.
They’re tiny, about the size of a pinky fingernail and smaller – iridescent flecks of stone chipped off bigger rocks that astronauts brought back from the Apollo 11 mission to the moon in 1969. But they’re valuable. Steve Henrickson is curator of collections at the Alaska State Museum in Juneau.
“These are all portions of the 40 pounds of moon rocks that Neil Armstrong collected on the Sea of Tranquility in July 1969. It’s mounted on a walnut base and it has a sphere of Plexiglas and the moon rocks are embedded in that. And right below that is an Alaska flag that also was carried to the moon on Apollo 11,” Henrickson said.
Henrickson says he’s been thinking about the rocks since he was told about the cold case when he took the job with the museum in 1988. He says the museum is thrilled to have them back.
“You know 30 some years to really pull all the pieces together. But when the moon rock came out of the woodwork we were already loaded for bear and really fortunate to return it to Alaska,” Henrickson said.
The moon rocks were given to Alaska by President Richard Nixon 43 years ago this week. All the states got such displays after the successful mission to the moon. Alaska’s traveled around the state and was put on display at the Alaska Transportation Museum in Anchorage until a fire there in 1973. That’s when they disappeared. Then they resurfaced 39 years later, in the possession of a Texas man who grew up in Alaska and was profiled on the reality TV show “Deadliest Catch.” Arthur ‘Colman’ Anderson was the foster son of someone who worked at the museum during
the ’70s. Anderson filed a lawsuit asking the Alaska Superior court to either declare him the moon rocks’ official owner or to compensate him handsomely for caring for them. He asserted the state had abandoned the moon rocks after the fire.
Alaska Assistant Attorney General Neil Slotnick was the lead council on the moon rock case.
“We filed a motion with the court asking that the plaintiff be asked to turn over the moon rocks and turn them over to NASA for safe custody pending trial. The court did sign that order. And the plaintiff actually drove the moon rocks from his home in Corpus Christie to Johnson Space Center in Houston and handed over custody to NASA,” Slotnick said.
Once they had them safely at NASA, the space agency and FBI worked together to authenticate them. Actually testing them would have meant crushing them up and destroying them. So instead they used old photographs and sophisticated analysis. The one that helped them confirm the moon rocks were authentic came from a woman named Marie White who now lives in Washington State.
“Lo and behold I got this email from Marie White and I want to read it to you. I read the Sunday Seattle Times article about your moon rock case. When I was age 8 the moon rocks came to Glenallen School as a special exhibit for our science fair. Attached is a photo of my brother Gene White and me holding the moon rocks in their Plexiglas and wood display case. The photo was taken in the main dining room of our tourist lodge at Lasa House outside of Glenallen. We had the moon rocks at our lodge because my dad was the president of the science fair committee at our school and spearheaded the moon rocks visit,” Slotnick said, reading White’s letter.
The photo was used to confirm that the moon rocks were indeed real. And Slotnick says it was one critical piece of evidence. Over the years, curators at the museum
maintained files containing evidence and testimony from officials saying they had seen the moon rocks in a display case in the rubble after the fire. Those files became the basis of the state’s successful case. Cindy Holderith teaches 8th grade science at Mears Middle School. She brought some of her students to see the return of the moon rocks at the Anchorage School District Education Center.
“The students who are here today are doing reports on Neal Armstrong and so we kinda had information that this was happening and so we were allowed to invite our students that were researching the original Apollo 11 mission and so it’s great that they got to see the rocks returned to Alaska,” Holderith said.
Sean Gardeline goes to Mears. He says he chose to do his report on Neil Armstrong and Apollo 11 because they showed people they could do things they dream about.
He says the moon rocks are cool but, “I thought they we’re gonna be a little bigger, but they’re still really cool.”
Seeing the moon rocks for himself Gardeline says, made what he was learning in school more real, something many more students will have the opportunity to experience with the return of moon rocks. They’ll be on display at the State Museum in Juneau through the month of December, then travel to other museum around Alaska.