Just before midnight last Friday, the alarm sounded at the Armstrong Air & Space Museum in Wapakoneta, Ohio, the hometown of Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon. When officials arrived at the scene, they found that thieves had stolen only one object: a five-inch tall solid-gold replica of the Lunar Excursion Module, or LEM that landed on the moon, reports James Doubek at NPR.
The stolen 18-karat-gold model was one of three produced by the legendary jewelry company Cartier for the Paris newspaper Le Figaro. The newspaper's readers funded the scale models, which the newspaper presented to Armstrong and his Apollo 11 colleagues, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin, during a 1969 visit to Paris. Each model contains a bit of microfilm printed with all the names of the readers who donated towards their creation.
As Doubek reports, it’s hard to put a value on Armstrong’s copy of the scale model. But for a general idea, Cartier purchased Michael Collin’s model for $56,000 when it went up for auction in 2003.
According to the Associated Press, there is speculation that the model was not stolen by collectors or art thieves, but was nabbed instead by burglars looking to melt it down for gold. Joseph Gutheinz Jr., a retired federal agent who has worked with NASA to recover stolen artifacts, points out that there is a moon rock nearby the model that could be worth millions of dollars on the black market. “Either [the thieves] didn't have easy access to the moon rock, or they weren’t into collectibles,” he tells the AP. “They were into turning a quick buck.”
The Armstrong Air & Space museum opened July 20, 1972, on the third anniversary of the moon landing. The tribute to its hometown hero contains many valuable artifacts including Neil Armstrong’s Gemini and Apollo Space suits, the moon rock, replicas of the Apollo 11 and Gemini VIII capsules as well as the plane Armstrong learned to fly in and an experimental F5D Skylancer, which Armstrong flew as a test pilot. Each of these is invaluable to the small museum, which wrote on its Facebook page:
“The truth is that you can’t steal from a museum. Museums don’t ‘own’ artifacts. We are simply vessels of the public trust. Museums care for and exhibit items on behalf of you, the public. Theft from a museum is a theft from all of us. Three hundred people driving from across the country were robbed of their opportunity to experience the museum today. For every day that an item is missing, we are all robbed of an opportunity to enjoy it and our history.”
The AP reports that the FBI, Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation and Wapakoneta police are all investigating the theft, though they have not released any updates so far.
This is far from the first stolen NASA artifact. In 2002, several NASA interns went full-on Mission Impossible to steal millions of dollars worth of moon rocks from a safe held in an oxygen-purged vault. Though the latest theft seems to be much lower tech, it has no less impact on the museum and the public. Hopefully authorities can recover the priceless piece before it can be melted into a puddle of gold and disappears forever.