Two Small Rocks From Space, Two Giant Lawsuits For Mankind

(c) Image by Juri H. Chinchilla.

Forty-five years ago yesterday, on July 20, 1969, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Neil Armstrong stepped into history. Shortly before 11 p.m. Eastern time, the pair emerged from their landing craft, the Eagle, and became the first men to set foot on the moon. This week, On Remand looks back at that “one giant leap for mankind” and two space suits:  the cases of the missing moon rock and the unidentified Martian matter.

Of the twenty-one hours Aldrin and Armstrong stayed on the moon, only two and a half were spent exploring the moon’s surface. After transmitting “the Eagle has landed” to the relief and exuberance of NASA mission control, the men did not impulsively charge from the Eagle like the Griswolds from their station wagon at Walley World. More than six hours passed before Aldrin and Armstrong opened the Eagle’s door and stretched their legs. What were they doing?

First, planning their escape. According to Aldrin:  “We both felt that… the most prudent thing to do after touching down was to prepare to depart if we had to.” They also planned to sleep and eat. Aldrin brought a spiritual snack for the occasion — a tiny vial of wine and a communion wafer. Minutes before becoming one of the first men on the moon, he quietly became the first person to celebrate communion outside of Earth. NASA did not broadcast the event; it had already been sued over the Apollo 8 crew reading from Genesis while orbiting the moon on Christmas Eve, 1968.

Rested, fed, and ready to run if necessary, Armstrong finally left the Eagle to set up the video camera so that half a billion television viewers back on Earth could watch history. In their brief time on the moon’s surface, Aldrin and Armstrong explored and took pictures of the “magnificent desolation.” They left behind an American flag, a plaque commemorating that first moon walk, and a patch in honor of fallen U.S. astronauts. They took home fifty pounds of lunar rock and dust.

Moon Rock Over My Hammy

It was a moon rock collected on the 1972 Apollo 17 mission and gifted to Honduras the next year by President Nixon that inspired a get-rich-quick-scheme and later lawsuit. When Alan Rosen visited Honduras on business in 1994, he learned that a retired Honduran army colonel wanted to sell that moon rock and a commemorative plaque for $1 million. The Colonel claimed that he received the items as gifts after a 1973 coup d’etat. Rosen declined, considering the offered goods to be “like the Brooklyn Bridge.”

Later, realizing that Sotheby’s fetched $500,000 for specks of lunar dust, Rosen reconsidered. In 1995, he signed an agreement to acquire the lunar lump and accompanying plaque for $50,000. But Rosen had only $25,000 — $10,000 in cash and a refrigerated truck worth $15,000. He handed the down payment over to a middleman, then returned to the U.S. to raise more money. A year later, still $20,000 short, Rosen acquired the moon rock and plaque in an under-the-table deal at a Denny’s restaurant in Miami.

Meanwhile, Joseph Gutheinz, an attorney and criminal investigator for NASA, was leading an operation to locate 170 missing lunar rocks that Presidents Nixon and Carter had gifted to various countries, states, and territories. Using an alias, he placed an ad in USA Today:  “Moon Rocks Wanted.” Rosen saw the ad, and although wary, took the bait. He met with Gutheinz and another undercover investigator and offered them the moon rock and plaque for $5 million.

After the meeting, Rosen got cold feet. Fearing Gutheinz might be working for the government, Rosen almost cratered the deal. But a month later, Rosen abandoned his concerns and agreed to allow Gutheinz to photograph the plaque at a Miami bank. Gutheinz snapped at the opportunity, and arranged for the U.S. to seize the moon memorabilia from Rosen.

In a subsequent case over the seizure, Rosen claimed the rock and plaque were legally his, pointing to the purchase agreement. Under Honduran law, however, the items were deemed “national property” and could not be sold legally. As a result, they were stolen goods and neither a “purchase agreement” nor Rosen’s pleas that he was an innocent intermediary could cool the hot goods. Rosen lost the case, and the U.S. eventually returned the moon rock and plaque to Honduras.

“Opportunity” Keeps Knocking

After putting a man on the moon, NASA set its sights on destinations much further away. Beginning in 1997, NASA launched a series of rovers to traverse and photograph Mars. As a result, Martian matter has had its day in court too.

When the “Opportunity” rover launched in 2003, NASA expected it to last only a few months and explore less than a mile. But the intrepid little robot has made the most of its opportunity, exploring twenty-four miles of the red planet to date. For its tenth anniversary in January 2014, Opportunity tossed up a new surprise.

Two pictures of the same Martian location, taken twelve days apart, revealed something odd. Where there was only barren, cracked Martian surface, twelve days later, a mysterious white object appeared. (Photos here.) In a press conference, Opportunity’s lead scientist described NASA’s impressions of the object:

This is strange. Now we don’t think that anything particularly exotic happened here.


It looks like a jelly doughnut.  White around the outside, red in the middle.  We’ve looked at it with our microscope.  It’s clearly a rock.

NASA hypothesized that one of Opportunity’s wheels flipped the rock into frame or that an asteroid impact caused the anomaly. (It good-naturedly dismissed – at 47:15 — William Shatner’s “theory” that Martian rock throwers were to blame.)

Rhawn Joseph, a published author and self-described scientist/astrobiologist, disagreed with NASA’s conclusion. This was no jelly doughnut-shaped rock, he claimed. It was evidence of life on Mars.

Based on his study and magnification of the two Opportunity photographs, Joseph identified the object as a living “mushroom-like fungus” that grew in the twelve days between the first and second photographs. But when Joseph contacted Opportunity’s lead scientist and at least ten other NASA employees with the exciting news, they ignored his pleas to investigate. So, Joseph did what any other spurned American would do under the circumstances. He sued NASA.

In his complaint, Joseph expressed exasperation with both NASA’s explanation and its investigation of the Martian matter:

NASA’s explanation is bizarre, absurd, ignorant, and little more than magical thinking.  A rock or a meteor does not grow in size.  A rock is unable to move upon its own volition.


Any intelligent adult, adolescent, child, chimpanzee, monkey, dog, or rodent with even a modicum of curiosity, would approach, investigate and closely examine a bowl-shaped structure which appears just a few feet in front of them when 12 days earlier they hadn’t noticed it.  But not NASA and its rover team. . .

Joseph’s demands were simple. He sought a court order to force NASA to take and make available high-resolution photos of the unidentified laying object from various angles, permit him to observe at the Opportunity rover command facility, and allow him to appoint two additional members to the Opportunity rover team. He also requested credit for the discovery of Martian life.

Inquiring minds may never know if the object Opportunity photographed in January is a rock, fungus, or space doughnut. The court dismissed all of Joseph’s claims except his argument that NASA’s refusal to investigate alien life violates the First Amendment. Approximately two weeks ago, NASA filed a motion to dismiss that claim. But for now, Joseph’s quirky lawsuit lives. The object at the center of this controversy, however, apparently does not. In a February press release, NASA reiterated that it is just a rock.

While Opportunity continues to traverse Mars, man was last on the moon in 1972, during the Apollo 17 mission. Of course, some conspiracy theorists believe the moon landing was a carefully staged hoax. Two Apollo astronauts have responded articulately to such conspiracy theorists. James Lovell, who made two trips to the moon, called an infamous conspiracy theorist “wacky.” Buzz Aldrin simply punched the doubter who questioned him. Both astronauts were sued for their actions, but the cases were dismissed. Astronauts, space enthusiasts, and conspiracy theorists may have to settle for stories of the good ol’ days, as NASA’s plans for future moon missions are unclear. At least Buzz Aldrin, like in his 30 Rock cameo, can always yell at the moon: “I walked on your face!”

Samantha Beckett (not her real name) is an attorney with more than ten years of experience working in Biglaw. When not traveling back in time, she is most likely billing it. Her writing has been featured in state and federal courts across the nation and in the inboxes of countless clients, colleagues, and NSA analysts. She can be reached at

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