A solid gold moon lander replica that was once gifted to Neil Armstrong has just been stolen from a museum. On Friday, security at the Armstrong Air & Space Museum in Wapakoneta, Ohio, heard an alarm went off and found that a display case housing the replica was empty.
The gold moon replica was the only thing stolen from the museum. It was created in the 1960s, following the success of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. Armstrong, along with fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, was sent on a goodwill tour around the world dubbed the “Project Giant Step.”
In 1969, the French newspaper Le Figaro asked its readers to donate funds for a special tribute to NASA’s astronauts. The tribute: three solid gold Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) replicas, manufactured by French jewelry-maker Cartier.
Moon lander replica stolen from Ohio museum was built by Cartier in the late 1960s
The solid gold replicas were given as a gift to Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins. They also included a piece of microfilm in the base of each model with the names of every reader who donated money for the tribute.
NPR reports that Cartier bought back the replica that was gifted to Collins in a 2003 auction. Cartier reportedly paid $56,000 for the 5-inches tall and 4.5-inches wide gold replica, which now sits as part of their permanent collection.
In 1973, Armstrong gifted his personal replica to the Wapakoneta museum, where it was safely kept until the robbery last week.
“We’re incredibly disappointed in the event, that somebody would take an item like this and would rob a museum, and would take cultural items away from the public,” Armstrong Space & Air Museum executive director Christ Burton told the Dayton Daily News. “Our greatest concern is that the object is returned in as near-perfect condition as can be at this point, so that future generations can get an opportunity to enjoy it.”
The Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation and the FBI are currently working with local police officials to locate the stolen item.
Former NASA agent fears the replica may be melted down
Wapakoneta is the birthplace of Neil Armstrong. The Armstrong Air & Space Museum was opened in his hometown in 1972, three years after he became the first person to walk on the moon. Along with the stolen replica, the museum is house to items such as the Gemini VII spacecraft, Armstrong’s Gemini and Apollo spacesuits, an Apollo 11 moon rock, and two aircraft flown by Armstrong.
Joseph Gutheinz Jr., a former NASA agent, told the Associated Press that he fears the robbers may have melted the replica for the gold. Gutheinz said the thieves left behind a moon rock from the Apollo 11 mission that’s bigger than other lunar rocks given away or loaned at museums. He believes that moon rock could easily be smuggled out of the country so a geologist could verify its precedence. Such rock could be sold for millions of dollars to a collector into space items, but the robbers didn’t take it.
“Either they didn’t have easy access to the moon rock, or they weren’t into collectibles,” Gutheinz told the Associated Press. “They were into turning a quick buck.”
The ex-NASA agent once ran an undercover sting operation in 1998 that led to the recovery of a moon rock collected during the Apollo 17 mission. The rock had been gifted to the Honduran government but was stolen. When he encountered the seller, the latter offered the moon rock to Gutheinz for $5 million.
It’s unclear how much gold the replica contains
Gutheinz currently works as an attorney in Texas. He recently led a group of criminal justice students from the University of Phoenix in a project that has helped to identify 79 mission lunar rocks and samples from the Apollo 11 and Apollo 17 missions.
The NASA agent said it would be a “damn shame” if the gold replica is melted down, and said it would be difficult to catch the thief if that happens. It’s unclear exactly how much gold the replica contains.
The Wapakoneta museum posted a statement on its Facebook page following the replica theft.
“The truth is that you can’t steal from a museum. Museums don’t ‘own’ artifacts. We are simply vessels of the public trusts. Museums care for and exhibit items on behalf of you, the public. Theft from a museum is a theft from all of us. Three hundred people driving from across the country were robbed of their opportunity to experience the museum today. For every day that an item is missing, we are all robbed of an opportunity to enjoy it and our history,” said the museum in its post.
Police officials haven’t disclosed any details regarding the investigation, including whether the museum has surveillance cameras that might have recorded the robbery.
Source: CBS News