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Hey Buddy ... Wanna Buy a Moon Rock?

23 July 2002 (All day)
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Hot property? Moon rocks might fetch a pretty price on the black market.

Showing extraordinary initiative, three student employees and a friend allegedly stole moon rocks from a NASA laboratory in Houston 10 days ago. The FBI arrested them on 20 July--the 33rd anniversary of the first lunar landing--after they reportedly tried to sell the contraband to an undercover agent in Orlando, Florida.

The alleged thieves are hardly the first people to try to make a illicit buck off of moon rocks. Hucksters have been peddling fakes for decades, and recently a fragment of the genuine article appeared on the black market. That chip apparently belonged to the government of Honduras, who received it as a gift from President Richard Nixon in 1973. But student interns Thad Ryan Roberts, Tiffany Brooke Fowler, and Shae Lynn Saur Gordon, along with Sean McWorter, decided to get their moon rocks straight from the source: NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, home of the Lunar Curatorial Facility. Within the facility's vaults lie the vast majority of the 382 kilograms of rocks the Apollo astronauts lugged home between 1969 and 1972.

The four allegedly had planned to nick some of the stones for months, and the FBI and NASA's Office of Inspector General got wind of their scheme in May, after a tip that someone was trying to sell moon rocks on the Internet. The would-be seller reportedly asked $2000 per gram for the rocks initially, but later bumped the price to $8000 per gram. Agents posed as collectors and eventually arranged a buy. Then on 13 July, a 300-kilogram safe disappeared from a lab at JSC. Roberts, Fowler, and McWorter appeared with the contents of the safe--a few ounces of moon rock--in a parking lot of a hotel in Orlando, where they were arrested when they tried to complete the deal, says Special Agent Sara Oates of the FBI's Tampa field office. Saur was arrested the same day in Houston. All four are charged with conspiring to steal government property and could receive maximum sentences of 5 years if convicted. Other charges may be added, Oates says.

Paul Spudis, a planetary geologist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, says he was stunned to learn that someone had walked out of JSC with a 300-kilogram safe. Curators should be more wary, he says: "This will remind people that the security measures which most people think are bureaucratic B.S. actually mean something."

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