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One man’s battle to return Cyprus’ Moon rock

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Missing for nearly 50 years, Cyprus’ Moon rock was finally returned in December. That we got it back at all is thanks to Joseph Gutheinz

Having finally made its way back to Cyprus after almost 50 years, the Moon rock, a gift granted by US President Richard Nixon to Cyprus and other 135 UN member states in 1970 following the successful Apollo 11 and 17 space missions, has a legendary back story and an almost miraculous happy ending.

Over the years, many of the rocks went missing, either stolen, lost or even forged. Cyprus’ was among them until it was returned and put on permanent display at the presidential palace in December.

That we got it back at all was thanks to the determination of Nasa investigator and lawyer Joseph Gutheinz.

In 1998, an unprecedented federal law enforcement undercover operation was created to identify and arrest individuals selling fake Moon rocks.

Gutheinz led the sting operation as a special agent for Nasa. The endeavour was dubbed ‘Operation Lunar Eclipse’ and was initially aimed at recovering the Honduras Apollo 17 Moon rock.

That particular rock was eventually tracked down and offered to Gutheinz for $5 million. US billionaire Ross Perot put up the money.

After the operation, Gutheinz realised that many of 135 countries that were gifted Moon rocks had no idea what happened to them. Some reported that they did not even receive them.

feature jon joseph gutheinz
Joseph Gutheinz

Gutheinz investigated further and determined that there was a lack of accountability on all the Apollo 11 and 17 Moon rocks that the Nixon administration gifted away.

However, despite making a case for their recovery to the US authorities, there was not enough manpower to track them down so when he retired in 2002 and got into teaching, he gave his graduate students the task of hunting down all 135 Moon rocks around the world.

“It was the right thing to do. I could not wait to actually start this project, it was always in my mind since ‘Operation Lunar Eclipse’,” Gutheinz told the Sunday Mail.

The former Nasa investigator included hundreds of his graduate students in his project and while some Moon rocks were eventually recovered, many others are still missing.

Fortunately, the fate of the Cyprus Moon rock turned out to be different.

In late 2002, one his graduate students began working on the Cyprus Apollo 11 Moon rock – which was actually a collection of lunar dust in a Lucite ball – and Cyprus Apollo 17 Goodwill Moon Rock – a fragment of a sediment from the Taurus Littrow valley of the Moon – were missing.

The traces of the Apollo 11 rock went cold almost immediately, but Gutheinz maintained hope that the Apollo 17 Moon fragment could still be recovered.

“Cyprus was one of the first countries me and my graduates started to investigate,” he said.

“The whole process of tracking down the Cyprus Moon rock brought history back to life. I had long forgotten about the strife on the island during the events of 1974.”

He had also forgotten that Rodger Davies, the US ambassador to Cyprus at the time, was assassinated during the Turkish invasion.

“Therefore, I presumed that both rocks got stolen or destroyed during the tumultuous events. In fact, there was no way to confirm it since Davies, who was the person responsible to hand Cyprus the rocks, was killed.”

feature jon the moon rock on display at the presidential palace
The Moon rock on display at the presidential palace

Fast forward to 2009, when Gutheinz, in cooperation with the Associated Press started another global search operation, this time with the crucial help of mass media. At that point, both Cyprus’ moon rocks were still reported missing, presumably lost forever.

“One day, one of my sources called me and told me: ‘Joe, you’re wrong about that!’ I know for a fact that Cyprus’ Apollo 17 Moon rock is not lost,” Gutheinz said.

The lawyer found out that in 2003, the son of a diplomat that was working at the US embassy in Cyprus at the time of the Turkish invasion, tried to sell a moon rock on the black market.

“I promised that I would never reveal the name of the diplomat if I eventually managed to recover the rock one day and fortunately that happened,” Gutheinz said.

“But in order for that to happen, I started investigating the attempted sale of the rock. I wrote letters to the US Congress asking for a formal enquiry on the matter. I needed the backing of the government.

“I also cooperated quite closely with the Cyprus Mail in order to find out who the diplomat was whose son took the rock.”

“When I eventually found out who he was, I knew I had to put pressure on him and convince him to do the right thing, namely return the rock. In that occasion, the help of the press turned out to be decisive, as the matter was reported at length in the US by the Associated Press and in Cyprus by the Cyprus Mail.”

Gutheinz then contacted a law firm in Washington and instructed lawyers to convince the diplomat’s son to return the rock after promising him that he would not be punished.

When the man eventually agreed to return the rock, Gutheinz felt relieved. He thought the hardest part of his mission was now over.

However, negotiating its return to the island by dealing with Nasa proved much more difficult than Gutheinz anticipated.

“In 2010, some friends of mine were still working for Nasa and one day they sent me a picture of the Cyprus Moon rock, thanking me for recovering it. In my head, however, I thought that it was about time to hand it back to the people of Cyprus and I got quite upset that Nasa had not yet done it.

He started pressuring Nasa and the US embassy in Cyprus to do the right thing. “

The Moon rock did not belong to the US, it never did.”

Gutheinz said he thinks Nasa held on to the rock for longer than necessary because of Cyprus’ history.

“It was all political. But what I reminded them was that the purpose of giving the Moon rocks to the 135 UN member states was not political at all. We gave them to friends and Cyprus was and still is a friend to the US. Holding on to it was simply outrageous!”

The lawyer, however, said he somehow understands how the rock went unaccounted for so many years and was presumed lost forever.

“The events of 1974 created the perfect storm,” he said. “The uprising, the unrest, the murder of the US ambassador and a completely different political scenario cannot be an excuse, but can at least partially explain why no one knew what happened to the Moon rock.

“That said, Nasa did the wrong thing by not giving it back to Cyprus when it was recovered. It was never our property.”

Gutheinz said he hopes the Cyprus Moon rock will serve to inspire generations of young Cypriots.

“Years ago, I was speaking to a friend of mine who wanted to be a pilot and eventually went on to become astronaut. He told me that what inspired him the most was seeing a Moon rock at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington.

“His awe turned into ambition. I hope it will have the same effect on young people in Cyprus dreaming of going to the space one day.”

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