What Happened to Kenya’s Moon Rocks?

Kenya received two gifts from the Apollo 11 and 17 space missions that seem to have disappeared.

If you decided to search for what ‘moon rocks’ are before reading this, then I figure you must be confused. It is the modern slang name for ‘cannabis caviar’, or rather a weed experiment whose image results look more worrying than enticing. But this is about actual moon rocks, not the weed ones.

Twice, in 1970 and 1973, the US gifted Kenya commemorative plaques with four rice-sized moon rocks each. The first batch was from the Apollo 11 mission, and the second from the Apollo 17 mission, the last time a human being stepped on the lunar surface. That’s pretty much all we know about the plaques as they seem to have never made it to the national limelight.

The Apollo program was designed to land humans on the moon. It was the third program in the US response to USSR’s advances in the space war, and succeeded in landing 12 men on the moon surface. Getting there itself wasn’t enough, the US had to prove to the world that it had.

In January 1969, President Richard Nixon suggested erecting the UN flag on the moon as well as the US one during the July 1969 mission that finally landed two men on the moon. His idea went to a committee-the Committee on Symbolic Activities. One of their options was to leave not just the US and UN flags, but also miniature versions of the flags of all UN-member states. The unspoken reason wasn’t altruism-to plant your flag on ‘new lands’ is, historically, to claim it. By the Outer Space Treaty, no nation on earth could claim ownership of an extraterrestrial body. So how about have a little something for everyone?

The miniature flags were packed in the Official Flight Kit. The idea of erecting the UN flag had been shelved, so Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong only erected the American one. It was a cheap, nylon flag (cost $5.50) that wasn’t meant to last long. And it didn’t. For all the controversies that flag still causes to date, it didn’t stand for more than 10 seconds. It was blown off by the rocket blast as the astronauts headed back to the main spacecraft.

When they landed back on earth, the miniature flags were set on wooden podium-like plaques with four 0.05grams of the moon dust the astronauts had picked up. The plaques were officially known as the Lunar Sample Displays. The astronauts then went on a ‘world tour’, delivering a selected number of the flags to heads of state. The only African country on the itinerary was Zaire (now DRC) so it’s unclear how and when the Kenyan one was delivered. It couldn’t have been handed to Daniel arap Moi-then Vice President- during his official visit to Nixon because that happened in May 1969. They were most likely sent through Leonard Oliver Kibinge, Kenya’s Ambassador the US between 1969 and 1974.

Kenya’s 1970 plaque would have looked like this. This is Norway’s plaque, displayed at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology Museum

The second plaque, with moon rocks from the Apollo 17 mission, was similar in some ways except the rocks were bigger-about 1gram-, and there was only one metal plate. Apollo 17 was the last time a human being landed on the moon, and marked the end of the ambitious, successful program. Some countries still have both plaques on display, but many cannot be traced to date.

As a gift, they became the legal property of the recipient. They came with no conditions or instructions, only two metal plaques one of which read “This Flag of Your Nation was Carried to the Moon and Back by Apollo 11 and This Fragment of the Moon’s Surface was Brought to Earth by the Crew of That First Manned Lunar Landing.” The idea though was that they would mark the successes of space exploration, and be displayed to the public. Few countries ever did that.

The second batch of plaques looked like this. This one is Iceland’s, and until 2015 was displayed at the Icelandic Institute of Natural History in Garðabær. It was removed due to security concerns.

A few of the plaques went on interesting journeys. The UN removed one of its plaques from exhibition because ‘its glass display was cracked’ in unclear circumstances. The Malta and Sweden ones were stolen, and have never been found. The Romanian one was auctioned off with the estate of its former dictator. NASA intercepted the Honduran one after it was smuggled back into the US in 1995, inspiring a concerted effort called Collect Space, led by a former NASA investigator, which has traced a handful of the plaques to museums across the world.

Another problem was that several countries either changed their name or flag, or both, before they got the plaques. One example is the Congo-Brazzaville flag that was flown on the Apollo 14 mission. The Congolese ambassador, Nicolas Mondjo, refused the gift because the flag was of a previous regime. It ended up at an auction (Congo reverted to its original flag in 1991). Although only two plaques were given out, each space mission seems to have included a set of flags-hence why the Congo one was from Apollo 14 mission. This helped in some cases, such as when NASA discovered it hadn’t carried Venezuela’s flag for the 1969 mission and used one that had been flown on an earlier space flight.

Other than the official flags carried in the Official Flight Kit, some astronauts also carried miniature flags in their Personal Preference Kit, a small bag for personal items. Most astronauts took flags that mattered to them in some way, or they could gift to people after. This included US state flags, Christian flags, and military ones. Few of the foreign ones have ever turned up at auctions. We know of at least one Kenyan one, flown in the personal kit of Alfred M. Worden in Apollo 15. The flag was auctioned to an unknown collector in 2012 and that’s just about everything we know about it. The opening bid was $100.

Inscription says “Flown to the moon on Apollo 15”

The accompanying letter of authenticity.

Other crew members who might have carried foreign flags to space and back were Jim Lovell (Apollo 13), Ed Mitchelle (Apollo 14), and Worden’s crew members in Apollo 15. Perhaps some day the collections will be auctioned.

The official plaques Kenya received seem to have disappeared, or were treated by the recipients as personal gifts. There’s a chance they are displayed somewhere, although I can’t find any proof of where they ended up. In case you know where they are, leave a comment below and I will get in touch. And no, we are not going to make new moon rocks because the recipe is online.

Read about the Maasai and the meteorite the Duruma once built a shrine for [Link].

Owaahh, 2018.

One story is good, 

till Another is told.