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Alaska reclaims missing moon rocks

The rocks will be displayed at the Alaska State Museum during Friday's Gallery Walk

Posted: December 7, 2012 - 1:14am

Lunar rocks collected from the Apollo 11 mission, the first spaceflight to successfully land astronauts on the surface of the Moon, are going on display at the Alaska State Museum in Juneau Friday.

The “moon rocks” were formally returned to the State of Alaska this week after being lost since 1973, when they were taken from the Alaska Transportation Museum in Anchorage after a fire.

Arthur Anderson, at the time the 17-year-old foster son of a museum curator, came into possession of the plaque, a present from President Richard Nixon to Alaska in 1969, containing the rocks.

When Anderson asked the Alaska Superior Court to declare him the owner of the plaque in late 2010, the state filed a counterclaim for damages against Anderson. Anderson ultimately agreed to relinquish claim to the rocks and plaque, while the state agreed to drop its counterclaim, and the case was dismissed Sept. 27.

Before Alaska took receipt of the plaque this week, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration had held the plaque and rocks as a neutral third party at the Johnson Space Center in Houston since March. Anderson turned them over for authentication at the judge’s order.

The authenticity of the plaque and rocks, which are small fragments that Alaska State Museums Chief Curator Bob Banghart estimated are one-eighth of an inch to one-quarter of an inch wide, was verified by the United States Federal Borough of Investigation.

Although the rocks are small — indeed, at least one caption from the time Nixon presented the plaque to the state described them as “Moon dust” — Banghart said they have value beyond their size.

“It’s more the symbol than the substantive issue of the (rocks) themselves,” Banghart said Thursday evening, hours before the plaque was due to arrive in Juneau from Anchorage. “And it’s a symbol of America’s engagement in space exploration, and it’s the first time we had gone to the Moon — any human being had gone to the Moon.”

The plaque, which also contains a small Alaska flag that was taken to the Moon and a brass plaque describing the gift, will be displayed across from the Visitor Services desk in the Alaska State Museum starting Friday. It will remain on display for the rest of the month.

The museum’s Science on a Sphere, a large sphere from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suspended inside the museum, may also be used to display a spherical image of the Moon and the landing sites of the space missions that have traveled there — including the site from which Alaska’s moon rocks were taken.

“I am pleased that my agency was able to facilitate the return of this artifact to the people of Alaska,” said Alaska Attorney General Michael Geraghty in a statement. “I want to thank the many federal agencies that helped us with this case, including the U.S. Attorney’s Office, NASA and the FBI.”

• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 523-2279 or at mark.d.miller@juneauempire.com.

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