It took 50 years, but a moon rock intended as a goodwill gift from the United States to the people of Cyprus is finally being presented to the east Mediterranean island nation.
The lunar sample, encased in an acrylic ball and mounted to a wooden plaque, will be officially handed over during a ceremony at the presidential palace in Nicosia on Friday (Dec. 16). To celebrate the occasion, the U.S. Embassy arranged for the moon rock to be displayed by the Cyprus Space Exploration Organization (CSEO) as part of an exhibit open through Sunday (Dec. 18).
"We feel [it] is perfect timing because it's 50 years after it was brought to Earth," said George Danos, CSEO president, in an interview with the Associated Press.
On Dec. 13, 1972, as their third and last moonwalk was coming to its end, Apollo 17 astronauts Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt paused in front of the TV camera to dedicate a 6.5-pound (3 kilograms) moon rock as a goodwill gift to the world. Upon its return to Earth, the rock was divided into 200 or so pieces, each weighing 0.04 ounces (1.142 grams), to be presented to 135 countries, the 50 U.S. states and the U.S. territories.
It was the second and last time that the U.S. gave away Apollo-recovered lunar material. Each of the Apollo 17 goodwill moon rocks was presented on a plaque with a flag of the recipient nation or state that was flown on the mission. A plate included with the display read, in part, that the lunar sample was "given as a symbol of the unity of the human endeavor and carries the hope of the American people for a world of peace."
Unfortunately, the situation in Cyprus at the time was anything but peaceful. The president of the country, who the embassy planned to present the moon rock to in 1973, was ousted in a coup. A year later, the U.S. ambassador was assassinated and the embassy was evacuated.
"We do not think we should continue to try to thrust upon Cypriots something which they are not interested in receiving," the embassy's staff wrote in a telegram to the U.S. State Department in April of 1974. "In [the] tortured politics of this little island, [the] government could well prefer not to be associated with the fact that it was a Cypriot flag which Apollo 17 delivered to the moon."
That might have been the end of it, had the diplomat entrusted with the plaque turned it back in to the State Department or NASA. Instead, for reasons that are still not clear, he held onto it for the rest of his life. In 1996, his son found the moon rock among his the possessions of his late father in a storage locker in Virginia.
After realizing what it was he had, the son reached out to a space memorabilia dealer for help in trying to sell the moon rock. That inquiry led to the NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG) — the independent investigation arm of the space agency — being alerted, but it still took a few more years and a media campaign for the OIG to take action and then even more time for the son to agree to turn it over in return for immunity from prosecution.
Even then, it was still another decade before the State Department delivered the moon rock to Cyprus for its long-delayed presentation.
Disclosure: collectSPACE.com and one of its contributing writers, Joseph Gutheinz, a University of Arizona instructor and a former OIG investigator, were involved in finding and reporting the moon rock to NASA and urging for its delivery to Cyprus.