Video: NASA probes possible moon rock thefts

  1. Transcript of: NASA probes possible moon rock thefts

    LESTER HOLT, co-host: Ever since Neil Armstrong first stepped foot on the moon and the astronauts who followed in his historic footsteps brought back hundreds of rocks that became national treasures used in research labs and sent around the world as gifts from the US, but we've now learned some of those samples have inexplicably gone missing. NBC 's Tom Costello reports.

    Unidentified Astronaut: Very freshly fractured rock .

    TOM COSTELLO reporting: Of all the moon missions, the last, Apollo 17 , collected the most lunar samples .

    Astronaut: OK, here's another one right here.

    COSTELLO: NBC 's Tom Brokaw later asked Commander Gene Cernan what it was like to walk on the moon .

    Commander GENE CERNAN: It's reality, but it's almost like a dream when you're standing in the middle of it.

    COSTELLO: But in the 40 years since Apollo , NASA has lost track of some of the rocks and lunar dust . Hundreds of pieces were given away as presidential gifts and more than 26,000 samples, most very small, were loaned out to researchers. Now a new NASA inspector general report finds not all were returned. Roger Launius is the curator of the Smithsonian 's Air and Space Museum .

    Mr. ROGER LAUNIUS: These lunar samples are priceless. They are precious. They are not replaceable.

    COSTELLO: In all, NASA spent a third of its budget, $19 billion over a six-year period on the Apollo program , landing a total of 12 men on the lunar surface . Apollo astronauts brought back 842 pounds of lunar rock and soil. NASA now lists 299 moon samples as missing or stolen. But the real number could be much higher. One inspector general's audit found 19 percent of the researchers who received moon samples couldn't account for all of them. NASA now says it'll tighten its policies on lending out astromaterials. Meanwhile, at the Smithsonian , the tiniest slivers of the moon are still a source of fascination and wonder. For TODAY, Tom Costello, NBC News, Washington.

By
updated 12/11/2011 7:43:24 PM ET 2011-12-12T00:43:24

Astronauts may have had the "right stuff" to go to the moon, but when it comes to keeping track of what they brought back, NASA seems to have misplaced some of the stuff.

In a report issued by the agency's inspector general on Thursday, NASA concedes that more than 500 pieces of moon rocks, meteorites, comet chunks and other space material were stolen or have been missing since 1970. That includes 218 moon samples that were stolen and later returned and about two dozen moon rocks and chunks of lunar soil that were reported lost last year.

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NASA, which has lent more than 26,000 samples, needs to keep better track of what is sent to researchers and museums, the report said. The lack of sufficient controls "increases the risk that these unique resources may be lost," the report concluded.

After last year's case of a missing moon sample loaned to a Delaware astronomical observatory, which the astronomers there claimed they returned to NASA, the agency's inspector general decided to audit about one quarter of the thousands of samples of moon rocks, lunar dust, meteorites and other space material that the agency loaned.

Of those cases, 19 percent of the researchers either could not account for the samples or they had material that NASA records indicated had been destroyed or loaned to someone else. That included 22 meteorites and two comet samples from a daring mission that grabbed comet chunks.

In two cases, one researcher still had nine lunar samples he borrowed 35 years ago and another had 10 chunks of meteorites he kept for 14 years. Neither had ever worked on them. Another researcher had 36 moon samples and kept them for 16 years after he had finished his research.

The audit also unearthed records that listed hundreds of samples that no longer existed.

In the Delaware case, NASA lent the Mount Cuba observatory a disk of moon rocks and moon dust in 1978 with the loan expiring in 2008. In 2010, NASA contacted the observatory and learned that its manager had died and the observatory couldn't find the sample, the inspector general's report said.

But that is not how the observatory sees it.

"We didn't lose it," said University of Delaware physics professor Harry Shipman, a trustee of the observatory. Yes, the observatory manager died, but sometime in the 1990s "he returned it to NASA. We don't know what NASA did with it," he said.

NASA told the auditors that the observatory returned meteorites, but not the lunar sample and that still is missing, said inspector general spokeswoman Renee Juhans.

NASA spokesman Michael Cabbage said the agency will continue to lend out material to scientists and for educational display but will adopt the specific recommendations the inspector general made to improve its tracking.

"NASA does not consider these national treasure assets to be at high risk," he said.

Online:Inspector General's report 

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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