Vegas casino mogul moon chips to Nasa

2012-05-23 20:12

Las Vegas - It's been a long, strange trip for what appears to be several tiny chips of lunar rock that found their way into a Las Vegas casino mogul's hands after being collected by the first men on the moon.

If they're real, they were plucked from the lunar surface by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, given by then-President Richard Nixon to former Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Garcia, pilfered by a Costa Rican mercenary soldier-turned Contra rebel, traded to a Baptist missionary for unknown items, then sold to a flamboyant casino mogul who put them in in a safety deposit box.

Now, more than two years after Bob Stupak's death, an attorney for his estate has sent to NASA officials a tabletop display featuring the four gray chips the size of grains of rice. They're magnified in a Lucite dome set with a small blue and white Nicaraguan flag.

A Nasa spokesperson, Renee Juhans, confirmed Tuesday that the agency was "taking steps to authenticate" the display it received from attorney Richard Wright.

Wright said he expects that if the chips are authentic, they'll be returned to the people of Nicaragua. If not, he said they should be sent back to him.

The tiny rocks can be considered priceless or worthless, said Joe Gutheinz, a retired Nasa investigator and moon rock hunter who has spent decades on a quest to find 160 missing moon rock samples around the world.

"In a sense, they're worthless because you can't sell them," Gutheinz said by telephone this week. "But for people who love space, you can't put a price on it."

They're part of a limited supply of about 381kg of rock collected by US astronauts in six missions between Apollo 11 in 1969 and Apollo 17 in 1972.

Gutheinz said the US distributed 270 moon rock samples in the 1970s as a goodwill gesture to countries around the world. States received 100 samples and territories received six. The United Nations received a sample from the Apollo 11 mission.

Cash and shares

The tiny chips that made their way to Stupak by 1987 apparently came from Nicaragua.

For a time, Wright said, the lunar stones were displayed at the Moon Rock Cafe at Bob Stupak's Vegas World casino, which featured a rocket ship logo and big sign declaring "Sky's the Limit." The display went into storage after Stupak replaced the place with the tallest structure on the Las Vegas Strip, the Stratosphere tower.

Stupak bought the rocks for $10 000 and 200 000 shares in his casino from Arizona preacher and businessman Harry Coates, according to documents provided by Wright and the recollections of Coates' widow, Silvina Coates

Coates recalled on Tuesday that her husband had lots of side business deals, including one with a man in Costa Rica for the moon rock display.

Wright has a copy of Stupak's $10 000 check to Harry Coates' business, Midway Development, along with an affidavit describing how Coates acquired the display from a man named Bob Stone of Golfito, Costa Rica.

The display had been picked from a pile of looted items by an unnamed Costa Rican mercenary fighting with Nicaraguan soldiers when a compound called "El Retire" was sacked "at the time of the revolution in Nicaragua," according to the affidavit.

"Bob bought it in good faith," Wright said.

Stupak wanted to sell the display a little more than a decade ago. He offered Wright 10%of the proceeds if he could help, then upped the offer to 25%. Wright counselled him that he couldn't auction or sell it, because whether it had been lost or stolen, it wasn't clear that Stupak had any legal right to own it.

After Stupak died, Wright contacted Nasa and the Nicaraguan consulate about returning the display.

Wright obtained a written promise in April from Nasa attorney Cedric Campbell that if the rock display is authentic, "Nasa will return the rock to the people of Nicaragua."

"Here, the attorney did the right thing," Gutheinz said. "He told Nasa and they're in the process of turning it over properly. We can only hope that Nicaragua gets its property back."