On Thursday, the Alaska State Museum in Juneau started displaying Alaska's long-lost moon rocks – some of the rarest rocks on planet Earth – for the first time since 1973, when they vanished following a museum fire.
The rocks, collected on the Apollo XI mission in 1969, were presented to Alaska's Gov. Keith Miller by President Nixon. Astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong gathered around 48.5 pounds of the rocks during the mission, the first geological samples of lunar rocks ever collected.
NASA created identical plaques to present to every state, with a walnut base, angled face-plate and dense, black moon rock fragments covered in plastic. Alaska's plaque has a state flag that also traveled to the moon with Apollo XI. The plaque was on display at the Transportation Museum in Juneau until 1973, when an arsonist set fire to the building and the rocks vanished in the aftermath.
The whereabouts of the moon rocks were unknown until 2010, when Coleman Anderson filed action against the state of Alaska seeking to be declared owner of the moon rocks, under the premise that the state had abandoned the property.
Anderson was the foster child of a museum employee who, according to court testimony of a museum official, took the artifacts home for safe-keeping during clean-up, and left them in a storage facility; Anderson testified that he found the plaque in debris on the museum floor. Either way, his foster parent left the state, and Anderson gained sole possession of the rocks. When Anderson moved out of state, he took the plaque with him. It would be 37 years before he filed suit against the state for ownership.
However, the Alaska Department of Law persuaded Anderson to drop the case, and two years later, on Sept. 27, 2012, the state again became custodians to the rocks.
Bob Banghart, chief curator of the Alaska State Museums, told Alaska Dispatch that the plaque is "actually the property of the U.S. government," and the state of Alaska is acting as steward of the lunar rocks.
The rocks will be on display through December. The museum will then pull the rocks from display and do some restoration work on the plaque, Banghart said.
A virtual display of the moon rocks will most likely be available on the Alaska State Museum's online exhibit website page.
While the museum does not have plans at this time to tour the rocks around the state, Banghart said it is "something to consider."