Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, Apollo 11 mission on moon
UNITED NATIONS – A rare gift bestowed by Washington to the United Nations more than 40 years ago has become the subject of controversy.
A moon rock gifted by the U.S. space program has apparently disappeared.
On July 21, 1970 – commemorating the first anniversary of his walk on the moon – Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong and his crew presented U.N. Secretary-General U Thant with a special souvenir from their historic mission.
The gift was a moon rock and a small U.N. flag carried aboard man’s first flight to land on the surface of earth’s lunar neighbor.
The items were sealed and mounted in a lucite crystal display case, which was prominently placed in the U.N.’s General Assembly visitor’s lobby where all could see. The U.S. gift was viewed by more than 2 million people over 25 years.
It also sat across from one the few remaining full-scale duplicates of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik, the first man-made satellite to orbit the earth.
But while Sputnik remains hanging in its glory at U.N. headquarters, the Apollo
11 gift has apparently disappeared. And it’s not the first time.
In early 2000, the rock and its entire display suddenly vanished from its General Assembly display position without explanation. Eventually, the U.N. sheepishly confessed the rock’s exhibition case had been damaged by a tourist, and it was seeking repairs.
At that point, the rock went into a state of limbo and has not publicly surfaced since.
For years, nobody could say where the rock was, its condition, nor the progress made in repairing or replacing its case.
Despite the controversy, the U.S. opted to give the U.N. a second rock, one from the Apollo 15 mission – this time to the organization’s Vienna offices in 2002. That gift has been a central feature of several local space exhibitions, the latest last June.
At first, the U.N.’s press office in New York explained the Apollo 11 rock was not on current display due to an ongoing headquarters renovation project. However, the area where the rock was originally on view was not affected by the renovation, and its Sputnik neighbor remains on view just a few feet away.
A subsequent search initiated by the United Nations last month originally turned up nothing.
Repeated inquiries to U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky about the controversy were responded to with a short, “We are still looking into it.”
An official in the organization’s office of protocol who claimed to have direct access, speaking on background, insisted the rock was “locked in a vault” in a secure undisclosed location.
That position was eventually repeated by the U.N. press office this week.
The official also insisted the rock’s display case has never been replaced and will not be until U.N. headquarters completes its renovations in 2013.
Based on the U.N.’s explanations, a repair that NASA claims would have only taken a few months will have stretched out for more than a decade.
Several requests to see the rock were quickly rejected by the U.N. with no elaboration.
Then earlier this week, the U.N. – in a bizzare move reminiscent of photos from terrorist hostage takers – provided three purported photos of the rock placed next to a recent front page of The Wall Street Journal.
Photo of purported moon rock from United Nations
In short, the United Nations continues to block any independent effort to substantiate the location and condition of the priceless U.S. gift.
The office of U.S./U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice rebuffed a request for comment.
Former U.S. Ambassador John Bolton was not surprised, telling WND, “This is very
bad timing for the U.N. considering a congressional review of the U.N.’s budget.”
While some at the organization speculate that the rock may have simply been “misplaced,” others are not so sure. According to the website Wikipedia, more than 180 similar moon rock “gifts”
made both to U.S. states and numerous nations around the world are now unaccounted for.
London’s Daily Mail reported that an authentic rock could fetch as much as $10 million on the black market.
According to Wikipedia, it is illegal to trade such articles, yet there is an acknowledged market for such collector’s items.
As recently as last May, NASA’s office of the inspector general conducted an undercover sting operation in Southern California in an effort to thwart a purported moon rock sale for almost $2 million.
Two such “missing” rocks have shown up in some very unusual places: the first in the home of former Colorado Gov. John Vanderhoof, the second in the presidential archives of Bill Clinton.
Both were gifted by NASA to the states involved, not the governors. Just how they wound up in the possession of the two former officials was not clear.
The U.N. itself is also home to a menagerie of unique gifts bestowed by member nations. Norman Rockwell, Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall are just a few of the many artists who have bestowed gifts to the U.N.
The U.N.’s art and artifacts collection is considered priceless, but like many institutions, it simply does not have the money, space and security to properly maintain all its gifts. As such, the U.N’s collection has been an occasional target for treasure hunters.
Some of the many gifts that have “disappeared” are a large sterling silver urn and a pair of solid gold antique perfume bottles (filled with a rare essence) presented by the Sultan of Oman in 1986. Ironically, they were prominently exhibited just outside the Security Council chamber.
The urn and perfume bottles disappeared from their display in December 1987, never to be seen again.
Many at the U.N. insisted the “heist” was an inside job. The items were located just inside an area normally restricted to diplomats and selected U.N. staffers. Diplomats claimed the stolen gifts were priceless and irreplaceable.
At the time, Secretary-General Javier Peres de Cuellar deadpanned to reporters: “No, [the urn and bottles] are not in trunk of my car!”
While Peres de Cuellar may have shrugged off the theft, the U.N. never recovered the articles.
Ironically, the U.N. replaced the Omani gift with a new item presented by the Government of Malaysia: A hand-crafted statue of a an extinct bird once found in the Indian Ocean region – the dodo.