05 September 2019
Where’s it gone?
By Neil Tidmarsh
Fifty years ago, the US president sent samples of moon rock (gathered by the Apollo 11 astronauts) as diplomatic gifts to every country on earth, to indicate that NASA was undertaking its space mission on behalf of all mankind and not just the USA. A fine and touching gesture, inviting everyone around the globe to celebrate that giant leap as a triumph for the whole of our species.
The sample gifted to the UK is one of many artefacts currently on display in the National Maritime Museum’s magnificent Moon exhibition. There it is, in its wooden case decorated with the Union Flag (the actual flag which went into space on board Apollo 11 along with the flags of every other country on earth), the small print along the bottom of the display label declaring “lent by Downing Street”.
Interestingly and ironically, this presidential apostle of the brotherhood of man was none other than Richard Nixon. Even more interesting is the fact that over half of those goodwill gifts are missing today. A total of 280 samples were sent out from the White House but as many as 170 of them have since disappeared, either lost, stolen or sold over the intervening half century.
Which countries have lost their samples? Which nations have had their lunar gifts looted, and how, and by whom? Sadly, the exhibition doesn’t tell us. Some disappearances have been explained. Malta’s was stolen while on display in the Museum of Natural History at Mdina in 2004, for instance. Ireland’s was accidentally dumped in a landfill site with debris from a fire in the Dunsilk Observatory in Dublin where it was on display in 1977. Spain’s was allegedly pocketed by a member of Franco’s family. There were rumours that Romania’s was secretly auctioned off by the dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu in the 1970’s. But most remain a mystery.
Warfare, violent regime change, geopolitical turmoil, greed and corruption are constants of human history, and the last fifty years haven’t been immune to them. Some countries have disappeared altogether in that time, of course. Where is East Germany’s moon rock, for instance? (Is it typical of today’s united, highly-productive but prone-to-hoarding Germany that it possibly has not one but two of them?) And where is Czechoslovakia’s? (Do Slovakia and the Czech Republic have half each?) And Yugoslavia’s? (Ground to a finer dust and blown away by the winds of war, no doubt, as Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia, etc fought it out between them). And South Vietnam’s? (And did Nixon really send one to the communist North, at the height of the Vietnam war?)
Some may have simply been misplaced, but the suspicion remains that others have been filched by dishonest civil servants or outgoing presidents and subsequently flogged off to augment a pension or privately displayed as an illicit souvenir. When President Yahya Jammeh was ousted from Gambia two years ago, could the stash loaded onto the airplane in which he fled the country (three vehicles from his collection of Bentleys, Rolls and Hummer stretch limos plus – allegedly – £11 million in cash or gold stolen from his people) have included a cache of moon rock? Could the three tractor-loads of loot ($1 billion in banknotes) liberated from Iraq’s central bank by Saddam Hussein’s son Qusay just before the US invasion in 2003 have included his country’s moon rock?
This week it was reported that members of the Assad family of Syria are squabbling over the clan’s wealth. President Bashar, apparently scrabbling around for the cash to pay the bill which Russia seems to have presented for winning his war for him, has expropriated the assets of an immensely rich cousin. Many commentators allege that those assets were themselves appropriated from the country and its people years ago and that the cousin is simply the family treasurer now reluctant to relinquish his grasp on them. Could they include Nixon’s lunar gift?
This week saw the conclusion of the first trial of Najib Razak, the former prime minister of Malaysia accused of corruption, embezzlement, money laundering and abuse of power. He allegedly embezzled billions of dollars of government funds from the state investment fund IMDB. Police raids on his home revealed and seized hundreds of designer handbags owned by his wife, a famously champion’s league shopper. Will further raids find lost samples of moon rock? Will the forthcoming trials find him guilty of stealing President Nixon’s heavenly gift to Malaysia, too?
It’s clear that the human race is squandering the resources of its own planet. The Earth is groaning under the onslaught of human greed, stupidity and carelessness. We all know this. But we aren’t stopping there. In those missing moon rocks, we’ve already begun to squander the resources of our Moon as well. No sooner did we return from our first visit there than many of us began to treat in the most cavalier fashion the invaluable matter we harvested from its pristine surface. We can’t be trusted to look after our Earth’s stuff and we can’t be trusted to look after our Moon’s stuff either. The fate of most of Nixon’s noble goodwill gifts is damning proof of our inadequacy as responsible guardians of anything.
For fifty years the Moon must have been looking down on us with sadness and bewilderment. Now that the race to the Moon is on again, with the USA, Russia, China, India and Japan (not to mention Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos) lining up on the starting grid, the Moon must be looking down on us with fear and dismay as well.