Canada’s moon rock
A moon rock is at once simple and mysterious: it is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand but big enough to inspire a lifetime of wonder. Usually weighing about one gram of rock gathered from the surface of the moon. The one on display at the the Canadian Museum of Nature is a typical moon rock, gathered from the surface of the moon, weighing about one gram. It was presented to Canada following NASA’s final crewed moon mission in 1972. It’s been 50 years since Apollo 17 astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt collected the sample, believed to be 3.8 billion years old. Ever since they tagged it Lunar basalt 70017, it’s been having some wild adventures here on earth.
The excitement began with a 13-yearold Ontario kid named Jaymie Matthews. A self-described “uber astro geek,” Matthews was the kind of kid who romped through the cemetery at night, savouring its special darkness to adjust his telescope. When the Government of Canada announced an essay contest to select a youth ambassador for NASA’s International Youth Science Tour, Matthews applied — and won.
Thumbing the rule that ambassadors had to be at least 17, Matthews met President Richard Nixon, hung out with Neil Armstrong, and enjoyed ringside seats for the launch of Apollo 17. But the highlight was hearing Cernan and Schmitt speak to the youth ambassadors from the moon’s Taurus-Littrow Valley. They told the keen astronomers that they would each receive a lunar sample. It was to be “a symbol of mankind as we assemble in peace and harmony in the future.” They even gave the rocks an official name: the Goodwill Moon Rock.
When the promised piece was delivered by mail to Matthews’ home, he was overjoyed. Though he was enamoured with his rock, which was mounted on a wooden plaque and enclosed in a Lucite bubble, it was not his to keep. He dutifully presented the plaque to Governor General Roland Michener, and it was meant to eventually be put on display at the Canadian Museum of Nature. Though no longer a youth ambassador, Matthews kept an eye on the unique object, calling the museum every few months just to see how it was doing.
That’s where things got a bit dark and mysterious, not unlike the rock itself. In 1975, during one of his periodic check-ins with the museum, Matthews was devastated to learn that the artifact had been stolen in Edmonton during a national tour. He recalls hanging up the phone and thinking, “If I’d known they were going to be so careless, I would have just kept it under my bed in a shoebox.”
The truth is, the rock did a fine job in its symbolic task of helping mankind work together for a better future. Matthews is now an accomplished astrophysics professor. And in 2008, as he prepared for a lecture in introductory astronomy, he thought back to that early inspirational event that placed the Goodwill Moon Rock in his hands for a brief time. He wanted to tell his students about his special relationship with the moon landing. While searching online for a photo of the Goodwill Moon Rock, a familiar image caught his eye. It was his 1972 moon rock — the one he believed to have been stolen — in a photograph taken in 2000, indicating it was in the possession of the Canadian Museum of Nature. How did the stolen piece find its way back to Ottawa?
Matthews contacted museum curator
Michel Picard, who was baffled but tried to be helpful. However, none of the museum’s current senior staff were working in 1975. Neither Matthews nor the museum could find any proof that there was a national tour, let alone an Edmonton heist. “To my knowledge, there is no indication it ever travelled or went missing,” says Dan Smythe, current head of media relations for the museum.
Smythe says the plaque was located in storage among the 14.6 million specimens of the museum’s National Heritage Campus, a place that Matthews describes as looking like a prop room for Raiders Of The Lost Ark. It seems that the most likely explanation is that the plaque was mislaid and a fanciful story was invented to appease the teenaged Matthews.
That said, missing moon rocks are surprisingly common. Science historian and journalist Robert Pearlman says approximately 140 countries and 55 American states and territories received moon rock displays after the Apollo 17 moon landing. “Of the Apollo 17 displays, 79 are currently ‘missing.’ It is important to note, though, that among those that are ‘missing,’ many may be exactly where they are supposed to be and we just haven’t found them yet.”
Canada’s Goodwill Moon Rock is now where it is supposed to be: on display in the Museum of Nature’s Earth Gallery. Even without its many adventures, it’s still an incredible piece. Museum mineralogist Glenn Poirier says that lunar samples were extremely difficult to collect. Astronauts were hindered by time, weight restraints, and their own cumbersome spacesuits. The surface of the moon also presented a challenge. As it’s covered with pulverized dust, finding suitable rocks wasn’t easy. Thankfully, the Apollo 17 mission had a trick up its sleeve: astronaut Schmitt was a geologist. His expert eye meant that the mission collected more lunar samples than any other, including the perfect piece to use as the Goodwill Rock.
Fifty years after it was collected in the final moonwalk, Lunar basalt 70017 continues to inspire.