Joseph Gutheinz, an attorney known as the "Moon Rock Hunter," poses in his office. Loren Elliott/AFP
After Neil Armstrong took a "giant leap for mankind" on the Moon nearly 50 years ago and collected rocks and soil along the way, Richard Nixon presented lunar souvenirs to every nation — 135, at the time.
Dozens of the "goodwill" moon rocks — some only the size of a grain of rice, others as big as a marble €— have since gone missing, and Joseph Gutheinz Jr is on a mission to find them.
The 63-year-old retired NASA special agent is the "Moon Rock Hunter."
"Some people go rock hunting," Gutheinz said in an interview at his law office in a Houston suburb decorated with awards from NASA and the US military. "I go Apollo-era rock hunting."
Gutheinz's quixotic quest to track down missing moon fragments intersects with the coups, wars, assassinations and other political turmoil of the past half-century.
"The Libyan moon rocks? Gone," Gutheinz said. "Afghanistan's? Gone."
The journey features a colorful cast of characters — from a Texas billionaire and a Honduran army colonel to a Las Vegas casino mogul, not to mention the late Spanish dictator Francisco Franco and the Ceausescus of Romania.
Beginning with Apollo 11, which landed on the Moon on July 20, 1969, and ending with Apollo 17, in December 1972, US astronauts collected 842 pounds (382 kilograms) of rocks and lunar soil.
Moon rocks collected by Apollo 11 and 17 were given to every country and the 50 US states.
Operation Lunar Eclipse
Gutheinz, a former US Army helicopter pilot and intelligence officer, is determined to restore the missing rocks to their rightful owners.
A replica of a moon rock is seen in the office of Joseph Gutheinz. Loren Elliott/AFP
"These were gifts," he said. "We didn't give them to individuals.
Gutheinz became involved with moon rocks while working as a special agent for NASA, where he ferreted out corruption among contractors by day and studied for a law degree at night.
"After the Apollo 11 landing, con artists were going door-to-door selling bogus moon rocks to the hopeful and the unsuspecting," he said. "I didn't like that."
In 1998, Gutheinz launched a sting operation, "Operation Lunar Eclipse," aimed at nabbing fraudsters.
"We went after the con artists," Gutheinz said. "What we found was the real thing."
After federal agencies declined to put up the money, Gutheinz secured $5 million from Texas billionaire and one-time presidential candidate Ross Perot.
An article written by Joseph Gutheinz is seen on a wall of his office. Loren Elliott/AFP
"It was not until we actually seized the moon rock that we learned it was the Honduras Apollo 17 moon rock," said Gutheinz, whose desk features a replica of it mounted on a plaque.
"There was a military coup in Honduras," he said. "And the dictator that came in gifted the moon rock to one of his colonels to say thank you."
The moon rock was eventually returned to Honduras after a years-long court case.
I'm going to find it
A stolen moon rock given to another Central American nation -- Nicaragua -- also underwent a circuitous journey.
The country's Apollo 11 fragment ended up with a Las Vegas casino mogul named Bob Stupak, who bought it from a Baptist missionary who had obtained it in Costa Rica.
"The story is that one of Franco's grandchildren tried to sell the Apollo 11 moon rock in Switzerland and that was blocked by Interpol," Gutheinz said.
One of Romania's two moon rocks also is missing.
"After the Ceausescus, Nicolae and Elena, were executed on Christmas Day 1989, the estate of this horrible communist dictator sold it to some capitalist," Gutheinz said.
Gutheinz is pretty sure he knows where Ireland's Apollo 11 moon rock is, but it's unlikely to be recovered any time soon.
It was housed in the Dunsink Observatory in Dublin when a fire erupted in 1977, and the debris ended up in a landfill.
Fortune hunters have been known to go "looking for their pot of gold" there ever since, Gutheinz said.
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