CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A criminal-justice graduate student from Kanawha County is trying to track down a mineral with out-of-this-world value that was supposed to have had a home in West Virginia since the 1970s.
As part of her class work with the University of Phoenix, Sandra Shelton is trying to discover what happened to the Apollo 17 Goodwill Moon Rock given to the state by President Richard M. Nixon.
In March 1973, three months after Apollo 17 astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt returned to Earth with a cargo of moon rocks from NASA's final manned lunar landing, Nixon ordered fragments of the lunar minerals distributed to a variety of nations, states and territories.
The one-gram moon rock fragments were encased in small acrylic shells, mounted with plaques and sent as goodwill gestures to 135 foreign countries and all U.S. states and territories. Accompanying the Apollo 17 Goodwill Moon Rocks were miniature flags representing each of the nations, states and territories, which had flown to the moon and back with the astronauts.
Many of those rocks are now missing or lost -- or, in some cases, stolen.
The Apollo 17 Goodwill Moon Rocks and a similar group presented to states following the Apollo 11 flight are the only moon rocks not tracked and monitored by NASA. The Apollo rocks are considered gifts, and those given to state and territorial officials are generally subject to laws that prohibit transferring them to private individuals or institutions without enabling legislation.
Shelton, a graduate of DuPont High who attended West Virginia University before enrolling in the University of Phoenix's graduate program, is taking a class taught by Joseph Gutheinz, who worked as an investigator in NASA's Inspector General's Office.
In 1998, Gutheinz led an undercover sting known as Operation Lunar Eclipse, in which NASA agents posed as buyers for the Goodwill Moon Rock that had been presented to Honduras. Gutheinz's team recovered the authentic, misappropriated moon rock, which had been offered to them for $5 million, and returned it to the proper authorities in the Central American republic.
Since 2002, Gutheinz, in his role as a University of Phoenix professor, has continued searching for missing moon rocks, involving his students in the search as a way to teach investigative skills. Some of his students have located missing moon rocks, and their search has generated a number of news stories, as well as "Moon for Sale," a 2007 British Broadcasting Corp. documentary.