North Carolina's moon rock to shine again in state museum

RALEIGH — It is the hardest proof of a peak of human achievement, far rarer than any gem and maybe worth $5 million or more.

It's also a drab little black pebble encased in a plastic ball and glued to a slightly kitschy early 1970s plaque. Which might help explain how the state's official moon rock ended up in a desk drawer at the Department of Commerce, then spent the past seven years in the custody of an N.C. State University professor who took it on occasional visits to school groups.

No longer. On Tuesday, the professor, Christopher Brown, brought the rock and other artifacts that it came with to the state Museum of Natural Sciences, where it is expected to go on display in a major new wing called the Nature Research Center when it opens in the fall of 2011.

"I've shown it to, who knows, hundreds of people," Brown told museum officials after handing over the rock. "You'll show it to thousands every day."

Joseph Gutheinz, a retired NASA investigator who since 2002 has led an informal project to locate the 370 or so lunar samples given to the states and other countries, said he was overjoyed to hear that North Carolina's had surfaced. But, he added, the museum needs to be careful.

A host of moon rocks have been stolen, from NASA itself in several cases, and a few have apparently traded hands for millions of dollars.

Some are now displayed under bulletproof glass with video cameras trained on them and guards nearby, said Gutheinz, a Houston lawyer who teaches classes in investigative techniques at the University of Phoenix. Over the years, he has assigned about 1,000 students to help locate the rocks.

"When people know where this moon rock is, it will become a target," Gutheinz said. "You want it on display, you want it shown. But if they don't create a secure display, it's like a bundle of money just sitting out there, and someone will make a play for it."

He said his students have often been shocked by how casually some foreign and state officials have treated the "goodwill rocks." One was found in a shoebox; others have been placed in drawers; dictators stole at least two, and Ireland's was thrown away after a fire.

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