ANCHORAGE — Alaska's long-missing moon rocks returned to the state shortly after midnight on Thursday. The rocks, part of 48.5 pounds of material collected by Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in 1969, were last on public view in 1973. They vanished after a fire and their fate and whereabouts remained a mystery for nearly 40 years.
The four basalt-like rocks are tiny, between 1/8 and 1/4 inch said Bob Banghart, chief curator at the Alaska State Museums. "They're just frags," he said. "But they came back from the first moon landing and that's why they're so significant."
The Apollo XI rocks were sent to researchers and museums. But some were also presented to foreign countries and to the 50 states by President Richard Nixon. They originally came to the Office of the Governor, Keith Miller and "toured around the state for a while" until they were put on permanent display at the Alaska Transportation Museum near Spenard Lake in Anchorage, Banghart said.
A fire damaged much of the museum and its collection in September 1973 and the state ended its funding of the facility shortly thereafter. Museum employees from Juneau spent three years conducting an inventory of what survived, but never found the rocks.
In 2010 a Seattle attorney asked for public records concerning the rocks. In December of that year, his client, Arthur Anderson, came forth with information that he was in possession of them and petitioned to have Alaska courts declare him the rightful owner. Anderson, a teenager at the time, said he had found them discarded after the fire.
The state made a counter-claim and presented evidence that the display containing the rocks was seen still in its place and relatively undamaged by museum employees following the fire.
"We think they were removed undamaged by (museum director Phil) Redden and put in a locked cabinet in his office and then taken to his house under the auspices of safe keeping," said Banghart. "We don't know how Mr. Anderson acquired them and through what process."
Anderson, a boat captain now living in the lower 48, is said to be the foster son of Redden.
This fall the parties reached an out-of-court agreement dismissing the cases and returning the rocks to the State of Alaska. Alaska State Museum curator Steve Henrickson, who had been searching for the rocks for more than 20 years, flew to Houston, where NASA had verified their authenticity, and returned to Anchorage with them at 12:30 a.m. on Thursday. They were shown at a press conference in the Anchorage School District Administration Building that morning and scheduled to fly to Juneau on Thursday night.
The rocks will be displayed at the Alaska State Museum in Juneau starting Dec. 7 and remain on exhibit into January. "Then we'll put them through conservation work," Banghart said.
The display, similar to those given to other states, consists of a walnut stand with a wedge-shaped top. A small Alaska flag, carried to the moon by Armstrong and Aldrin, is covered by a sheet of Lucite. The fragments are encased in a small acrylic semi-globe mounted above the flag.
Banghart said the museum also has a moon rock sample collected during the Apollo 17 mission in 1972, the last manned mission to the moon. The Anchorage Museum displays a plum-sized rock, on loan from NASA, near the Thomas Planetarium. It was brought back to Earth by the Apollo 15 mission in 1971.
Banghart said that the 1969 moon rocks will probably be placed on permanent display at the new Alaska State Museum building, scheduled to open in 2016.
Reach Mike Dunham at email@example.com or 257-4332.