A chip from an Apollo-17 moon rock is mounted on a plaque with the Honduras flag in this image taken at the time of the original presentation.
By NBC News space analyst
NBC News

After making the hazardous voyage from the moon to Earth, and then surviving black market transactions and federal law enforcement stings, a small piece of lunar rock finally returned to its intended destination Monday. NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe formally presented the lunar sample to Honduras ambassador Mario Canahuati in a ceremony in Washington.

The piece is a small chip from a moon rock retrieved by the Apollo-17 mission in December 1972. After scientific study, it was dubbed “the Goodwill rock”, and broken into almost two hundred pieces for distribution to all the states of the United States, to Puerto Rico and to 135 foreign nations. Each chip was encased in acrylic and mounted on a plaque together with a flag of the recipient, which had also been flown to the moon and back.

Most samples were put on display in museums or universities, where they remain. But the 1.1 gram piece sent to Honduras later disappeared. It only reappeared in 1998 when federal agents confiscated it from a man trying to sell it commercially.

The moon rock’s travels, as reconstructed by federal investigators, involved a Honduran army colonel named Roberto Argurcia Ugarte, who originally was given the plaque for his support of the winning side of the military coup.

The moon rock’s travels, as reconstructed by federal investigators, involved a Honduran army colonel named Roberto Argurcia Ugarte. He claims he originally was given the plaque for his support of the winning side of a military coup in the 1970s, but a later investigation showed that the plaque was not stolen from the presidential palace until after 1990.

In 1996, Ugarte approached U.S. businessman Alan Rosen, a 57-year-old fruit importer, and offered to sell the rock for $1 million. After negotiations, Rosen agreed to purchase it for $15,000 in cash and a somewhat larger value of bartered goods. He was given the plaque in April 1996 at a Denny’s restaurant near the Miami airport.

Although U.S. regulations prohibit private ownership of Apollo lunar samples, Rosen has stated that his own investigation indicated the lunar material had been the property of the Honduran government and thus was exempt from that prohibition. He loaned a portion of the rock to a lunar geologist who contacted NASA and verified it was part of the original Apollo-17 sample.

Rosen said he assumed that since NASA did not immediately confiscate the sample, this implicitly confirmed that his ownership was undisputed. He then began offering it for sale online. Asking price: $5 million.

Around the same time, NASA investigators had been growing concerned over a growing scam involving the sale of counterfeit moon samples and initiated “Project Lunar Eclipse”. Together with U.S. postal inspectors, Houston-based investigator Joseph Gutheinz created a fictitious company known as John’s Estate Sales, and took on the undercover name of Tony Coriasso. He placed a quarter-page advertisement in USA Today; the ad was headlined “Moon Rocks Wanted” and showed a picture of a man jumping on the moon.

On October 20, 1998, the two parties met at Tuna’s Waterfront Grill in Miami, after cautious preliminary discussions by telephone. Rosen was suspicious of a sting, and the federal agents still believed the alleged moon rock was phony. There were surprises in store for both sides of the deal.

The undercover agents were eventually taken to Rosen’s safe deposit box and shown the plaque. They immediately confiscated it.

“The moon rock was seized by Customs Service agents because it was smuggled into the United States without being properly declared on Customs Service forms, as is required by law,” Customs spokesman Zach Mann said in an interview with Christina Reed of the American Geological Institute. “If Martians had brought down pieces of Mars for sale in the United States, as long as they declared customs it would be duty free,” Mann added. “It is only legitimate if someone has legal possession and authority to own it and as long as it is declared.”

Once the authenticity of the rock was established, the federal investigation changed course and concentrated on violation of Customs regulations, as well as the prohibitions against personal ownership. But for five years, Rosen argued in court that he was the legal owner of the object.

The forfeiture case had the bizarre title “United States v. One Lucite Ball Containing Lunar Material (One Moon Rock) and One Ten Inch by Fourteen Inch Wooden Plaque.” Earlier this year, a federal court in Miami ruled that the plaque was still the property of the Honduran government. Rosen was not charged in any federal offense. According to the Honduran Embassy in Washington, the fate of the retired Honduran army colonel is not known.

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