Interplanetary Art Smuggler Sought By Moon Mystery Detectives

In November1969, a plot was launched to smuggle potentially priceless works of art by thelikes of Warhol and Rauschenberg out of the country. Despite it being carriedout during one of the century's most widely watched events, the art was liftedin secret and deposited a quarter of a million miles away, where only a dozenmen would ever visit.

Now, fourdecades later, detectives are hoping the public can help identify theindividual at the center of this caper: the person who sent six artists'miniaturized masterpieces to the moon.

Aman known simply as "John F."

The"Moon Museum" mystery is not the next case to be profiled on "America'sMost Wanted." Rather, it is part of the June 21 season premiere of"History Detectives" on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). [Apollomoon mission special report.]

"I willnever think of the moon in the same way again," said Gwendolyn Wright, thehost of "Detectives" and an architecture professor at ColumbiaUniversity. "This case truly surprised me. What I thought seemedimpossible, at first, became an amazing story of art winning its placealongside science, and some playful innovation that is sure to intrigue historybuffs, spacelovers and art aficionados alike."


"HistoryDetectives" first picks up on John F.'s trail with a visit to JadeDellinger, a Florida art curator who purchased in an online auction a tiny(three-quarters by one-half by 1/40-inch) ceramic "mini-canvas" withsix separate simple artworks etched onto it. Based on the information he wasable to glean from the sale's description and from further research online, theceramic chip, once the possession of an engineer who worked at BellLaboratories in the 1960s, was a duplicate of a collaborative art project.

"Myunderstanding is that Andy Warhol contributed," says Dellinger as part ofa conversation with Wright during the show. "Robert Rauschenbergcontributed and four other artists."

Wright,after some online research of her own, learns that the wafer was organized byanother of the artists, Forrest "Frosty" Myers, who conspired to sendthe first pieces of art to another celestial body.

"Goingto the moon was the biggest thing in our generation," Myers explainsto Wright. "My idea was to get six great artists together and make it atiny little museum that would be on the moon."

Myers, arenowned sculptor, contributed a "linked symbol" that he called"Interconnection." David Novros, an earlyminimalist painter, and John Chamberlain, best known for creating sculpturesfrom old car parts, provided drawings that looked like circuitry.

Swedish popsculptor Claes Oldenburg shared one of his signatureinterpretations of Mickey Mouse for the project. Robert Rauschenberg, famousfor his found-object collage works, drew a single straight line.

"AndyWarhol decided he would do his signature, which was an 'A' and a 'W,'"recounts Myers. Warhol's inscription however, when viewed from a certain angle,appears to be a rocket or a part of male anatomy. "He was being theterrible bad boy."

The originalworks were drawn on standard-size sheets of paper. To shrink them to chip size,Myers worked with an artist-engineer collaborative calledExperiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), which in turn put him incontact with Fred Waldhauer, an engineer at BellLabs.

Waldhauer, using a processsimilar to that used to create telephone circuits, reduced the sketches andimprinted them on to a thin ceramic wafer. According to Myers, 16 to 20 of thechips were produced.

"At thetime, this was state-of-the-art engineering," says Myers.

A.O.K. All Systems Are Go

The wafercreated, Myers next challenge was getting it to the Moon. He contacted NASA butthey expressed little interest.

"Theynever said 'no,'" Myers explains, "I just couldn't get them to sayanything."

That's whenMyers' "Moon Museum" went underground.

Waldhauer told Myers that heknew an engineer working at Grumman Aircraft, which was building the lunarmodules for NASA. That engineer, whose name was only known to Waldhauer, could secretly stow the Moon Museum under thethermal blankets covering one of the legs of "Intrepid," thespacecraft set to land on the moon with the Apollo 12crew in November 1969.

"Theguy said immediately, 'Yeah, I can do this,'" explains Myers.

Now acloak-and-dagger caper, Myers needed a means to know if indeed his chip made itonboard.

The telegramarrived Nov. 12, 1969, just two days before the second lunar landing missionwas to launch.

"Your On 'A.O.K. All System AreGo" (sic) the Western Union-delivered message read. It was signed"John F."

"Thenthere was cause for celebration," says Myers. "We went to the barsand opened some champagne."

"Ihaven't thought of the moon the same since," he says.

Whois John F?

Thequestion, as Wright explains on "History Detectives," is who was JohnF.? Only Waldhauer knew who he was.

"Fred'spassed away," Myers explains to Wright.

To try tolearn the identity of the man who smuggled the first art to the moon, Wrightreached out to Apollo 12 lunar module pilot Alan Bean, who after returning fromthe moon chose to become an artist himself.

"Thisis news to me," says the astronaut on the show. "I am not aware ofthis chip going with us."

Of course,given the way the chip was said to have been stowed, there was no reason forthe crew to know. And Bean admits that of the hundreds of people that worked inand around the lunar module readying it for flight, he didn't know most oftheir names.

John F. alsohad good reason to keep his identity secret.

"Iwould say that John F., if this is a truthful thing, would be risking his wholecareer, what he's worked for all his life," remarks Bean.

But was John F.'s actions so unusual? Was he the only person tosecretly stow something aboard?

"Therewere small personal items that the fellows put in between the [thermal]blankets on the spacecraft," reveals Richard Kupczyk,Grumman's launch pad foreman. Family photographs, for example, were tucked inbetween layers of insulation on the lunar module.

"Never,ever was there anything that was done to the spacecraft that would be a safetyissue," he quickly adds. "Was it wrong? Yes. But we were caught upinto this thing and we were good, and we knew it, and we left our mark."

That others at Grummanwere doing the same as John F. makes it likely that the Moon Museum is indeedon the moon, says Kupczyk.

But a checkof the Grumman yearbook that listed all the engineers who worked there at thetime reveals only two men with the initials 'JF,' and neither claims Kupczyk had access to the spacecraft.

Kupczyk believes the namemay have been borrowed.

"When Iread the telegraph and I saw the way it was written, the first thing thatjumped into my mind was the fellow who started it all, JFK. So John F. Kennedyjumped into my mind as a pseudonym, maybe," he says.

Will thereal John F. please stand up?

Faced withno other leads to John F., "History Detectives" has turned for thefirst time to its audience in the hopes that someone watching might solve themystery.

"So, ifyou were John F., or you know someone who you think could have been John F.,please let us know," says Wright.

Updates onthe search for John F. will be posted to the "History Detectives"website.

Thecase of the "Moon Museum" will air on Monday, June 21 at 9:00 p.m.EDT on PBS, along with two other space history-related investigations.

In "Satelloon," professor of sociology at the Universityof Pennsylvania Tukufu Zuberitracks a scrap of metallic Mylar that could be part of an early U.S. satelliteballoon. In "Space Boot," Elyse Luray, an art historian, tries on ajury-rigged ski boot with a magnetic metal brick bolted to the bottom that mayhave been a NASA prototype.

Click through to to watch the"Moon Museum" segment of "History Detectives" before itairs.

The caseof the "Moon Museum" will air on Monday, June 21 at 9 p.m. EDT on PBS(check local listings).

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Robert Z. Pearlman Editor, Contributor

Robert Pearlman is a space historian, journalist and the founder and editor of, an online publication and community devoted to space history with a particular focus on how and where space exploration intersects with pop culture. Pearlman is also a contributing writer for and co-author of "Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space” published by Smithsonian Books in 2018. He previously developed online content for the National Space Society and Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, helped establish the space tourism company Space Adventures and currently serves on the History Committee of the American Astronautical Society, the advisory committee for The Mars Generation and leadership board of For All Moonkind. In 2009, he was inducted into the U.S. Space Camp Hall of Fame in Huntsville, Alabama. In 2021, he was honored by the American Astronautical Society with the Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History.