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Our country’s space program has changed (not necessarily for the better), but there was a time when the thought of putting a man on the moon was the stuff of pipedreams.
Then America did it in 1969.
When we did, the men of Apollo XI brought moon rocks back to earth.
Alaska got some of them.
They’d been presented to the state by President Richard Nixon as part of a plaque given to Gov. Keith Miller at the National Governors Association meeting on Dec. 3, 1969.
The display included a small Alaska flag; a small Lucite ball with pieces of lunar material that the astronauts had gathered there; a brass label “to the People of the state of Alaska,” and another explaining how that state flag had been carried to the moon and back by Apollo XI, “and this fragment of the Moon’s surface was brought to Earth by the crew of that first manned lunar landing.”
The plaque toured the state before going to a branch of the Alaska State Museum in Anchorage, the Alaska Transportation Museum.
It was lost after a 1973 arson fire at the museum. The display turned up in the possession of Arthur Anderson, who claimed they were his, because the state — he claimed — had abandoned them.
The rocks survived the fire in good shape, according to the state’s risk manager in 1975, who noted that adequate security “was impossible due to the lack of restricted access prior to and after the fire.”
According to a decision issued Sept. 27 of this year by Superior Court Judge Eric Aarseth, the museum’s curator at the time, Phillip Redden, brought the moon rocks home for safekeeping during the cleanup efforts. The transportation museum never reopened.
Anderson, the man who claimed ownership, was Redden’s foster son, a 17-year-old in 1973. He testified in the recent court case that he’d helped with the clean-up efforts and “acquired possession of the Alaska Apollo XI plaque and the moon rocks.” He said he’d found the display in the debris on the floor of the museum and, with a foster brother, cleaned it up.
By 1975, state museum officials contacted Redden —who had left state service in 1974 and died in 1998 — to ask where the rocks were. Redden had moved out of state and said he didn’t know, but he thought they would still be at the transportation building. They weren’t. The state had been looking for them ever since.
On Dec. 28, 2010, Anderson filed a court action asking that he be declared the owner of the moon rock plaque because the state had abandoned it. Because he and his stepbrother had cleaned and polished the display after the fire, he asked that if he couldn’t keep the display, he at least be paid for his work restoring it.
Anderson turned the rocks over to NASA, which determined that the display was indeed the one that went missing after that 1973 fire. Anderson eventually “voluntarily relinquished his claim” both to the rocks and to any repayment, the judge wrote.
Judge Aarseth wrote in his September decision that the state did not “abandon” the display: “A person who finds property is not the owner of the property.” There’s no finders-keepers when it comes to such things.
Alaska’s moon rocks are home at last. Starting today, they are on display at the Alaska State Museum in Juneau, where Alaskans can see them throughout the month.
An irreplaceable piece of our history returns; that news rocks.