NICOSIA, CYPRUS (AP) – Half a century after United States (US) astronauts brought it back from the moon’s surface, a minute piece of extraterrestrial rock has finally reached its intended destination, the east Mediterranean island nation of Cyprus.
The 1.1-gramme piece of moon rock was on display on Thursday at an exhibition commemorating the 50th anniversary of the last of the US Apollo lunar landings, and the Artemis mission – whose Orion capsule is on its way back to Earth after orbiting the moon.
“We have the moon rock, which we feel is perfect timing because it’s 50 years after it was brought to Earth,” said President of the Cyprus Space Exploration Organisation George Danos which is hosting the exhibit.
The lunar sample is encased in a plastic globe with an attached plaque underneath a small flag of Cyprus that reads: “This fragment is a portion of a rock from the Taurus Littrow valley of the moon. It is given as a symbol of the unity of human endeavour and carries with it the hope of the American people for a world at peace.”
That echoes the words of Apollo 17 astronaut Eugene Cernan, who said the rock would be a “symbol of what our feelings are, what the feelings of the Apollo programme are, and a symbol of mankind, that we can live in peace and harmony in the future”. Apollo 17 closed out the moon programme, with the three astronauts returning to Earth on December 19, 1972.
It was one of 270 such lunar samples brought back from moon missions in 1969 and 1972 that the Nixon administration gave as gifts to foreign countries.
But the item vanished as Cyprus reeled amid war and internal strife in 1974, the year US Ambassador to Cyprus Rodger P Davies was assassinated.
It was eventually returned to NASA in the US and locked up in a vault. It finally made its return to Cyprus through the efforts of Danos and will be officially handed over to the Cypriot people during a December 16 ceremony at the presidential palace.
University of Arizona instructor and a former investigator for NASA Joseph Gutheinz, who has been tracking down missing moon rocks, had told The Associated Press (AP) that the Cyprus moon sample was taken by a relative of a US diplomat who had been posted to the US Embassy in Nicosia at the time.
Gutheinz said that in 2009 he put pressure on the individual with the rock to “do the right thing” and return it to NASA, which he did after a five-month-long negotiation.