Today in 1972, Apollo 17 returned from the moon.

It is, at least for now, the last moon mission where astronauts walked on its surface, and it’s a mission that brought back a little bit of moon rock to share with everybody.

While the other lunar missions had also brought back lunar samples, many of those went to labs to be studied.

As Apollo 17 wrapped up, astronauts Harrison Schmitt and Eugene Cernan announced that one of the rocks they collected, officially sample 70017, would be divvied up across the country and around the world, to inspire young people to keep exploring and learning about space, and to work for peace and harmony on Earth.

President Richard Nixon ordered that the moon rocks be encased in acrylic, mounted on plaques and sent to every American state as well as heads of state of 135 countries.

Many of the goodwill moon rocks, as they were called, ended up on display in museums, as you might expect.

But a significant number of these lunar gifts just kind of went missing.

Sometimes they were put in storage and people forgot, but other stories were a little more complicated.

In Alaska, there was a fire at the museum that displayed the moon rocks, and, as people cleaned up the debris, the stepson of the curator took the plaque home.

The Louisiana moon rock only turned up a couple years ago, after a guy who had planned to use the plaque wood to refurbish his rifle’s stock realized that he’d bought a moon rock secondhand and returned it.

Several of the rocks given to other countries were swiped, smuggled out of the country and put up for sale on the black market.

Fortunately, there have also been efforts to find these missing samples and put them back where they’re supposed to be.

Lawyer and former NASA investigator Joseph Gutheinz Jr. has worked for decades with groups of criminal justice students to document the last known whereabouts of the missing moon rocks and then figure out where they might be.

And while it can be very slow and detailed work, other times it’s more straightforward.

In the late 90s, they put an ad in the newspaper USA Today that read “Moon rocks wanted.”

Sure enough, they heard from a dealer who offered to sell them a sample, which turned out to be one that had gone missing from Honduras.

A customs agent seized it.

Gutheinz and his teams have tracked down dozens of missing moon rocks, but the work continues, so please keep an eye out.

If you’re anywhere near Cocoa Beach, Florida, this holiday weekend, watch for the Surfing Santas!

Every Christmas Eve since 2009, surfers have gathered on the beach, put on big white beards and bright red hats, and make merry on surfboards, all while they raise money for charity.

Louisiana’s missing moon rock found by Florida man recycling wooden plaques into gun stock (The Advocate – Baton Rouge, LA)

Finding lost moon rocks is his mission (Los Angeles Times)

Surfing Santas In Cocoa Beach 

We thank our Patreon backers to the moon and back

Photo by Kelly Michals via Flickr/Creative Commons