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Apollo Moon rock is rediscovered in Cambodia’s debut on the display

Encased in lucite, this 1.142-gram moon rock was returned to Earth by Apollo 17 in 1972 and presented to Cambodia a year later.

(US Embassy in Cambodia through collectSPACE.com)

A small moon rock given to Cambodia by the United States in the midst of the Vietnam War has resurfaced after all, but lost time and struggle.

Officials of the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh and the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia, the museum has the display of the “goodwill” moon rock on Monday (June 18), after an extensive effort to determine its origin.

“Last fall, the National Museum approached the AMERICAN Embassy to investigate the background of this unique artifact,” said Michael Newbill, Deputy head of Mission at the U.S. Embassy. “The history and the background remained a mystery until after six months of research with NASA, the U.S. National Archives of the U.S. Library of Congress, the Cambodian National Library and Archives and the Center for Khmer Studies library.” [Should We Open A Number Of Sealed Apollo Moon Samples?]

“We can now reveal today, for the first time in the history of this unique gift from the United States, Cambodia,” said Newbill at the exhibition’s opening.

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Of the Taurus-Littrow to Phnom Penh

Before they were the last two people to depart from the moon in December 1972, Apollo 17 astronauts Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt paused their exploration of the Taurus-Littrow lunar valley to spend a special moonstone as a symbol of “peace and harmony” between the countries “in the world.”

Radioing back to the Earth, they announced that a part of the rock would be shared with many nations and offered their wishes for goodwill “the whole of humanity in the future.”

Three months later, when US President Richard Nixon indicated that fragments of that goodwill moon rock distributed to 135 nations and the 50 AMERICAN states.

On 19 July 1973, a month before the US ceased bombing in Cambodia as part of Operation “Freedom”, an extension of the Vietnam War and the Cambodian civil war, U.S. Ambassador Emory Swank presented Cambodia piece of the moon to the country of the minister of education, Keo Sangkim, in an official ceremony.

The 1.142-gram rock, embedded in a clear lucite atmosphere, was gifted on a wooden plaque with the flag of the country that was flown to the moon on Apollo 17.

“The programme and the gift, which your excellency has just given to the Khmer people, is a symbol of the sincere desire of the United States of America for the promotion of peaceful cooperation between the nations of the Earth in order to achieve an everlasting peace on our planet in general, and for a stable peace in Southeast Asia, in particular, a peace that the Khmer people want,” wrote Lon Nol, the former self-proclaimed president of the coup-created Khmer Republic, in a letter to Nixon in July 1973 (translated from French).

“Also, you can be sure that we are the current gift of the great people of the United States of America as the most precious gift we have ever received,” said Nol.

But with the fall of the Khmer Republic two years later and the emergence of other conflicts in the four decades after, that “the most precious” moon rock was separated from the plaque, mounted on an unobtrusive stand and at a certain point, hidden in storage at the National Museum in Phnom Penh. [Moon Memories: Thousands of Apollo Photos Released Online]

The rediscovery of the moon (rock)

Cambodia’s Apollo 17 moon rock may have remained lost were it not for a French researcher working in the National Museum.

“He realized that there was no background information in the museum about the history of the moon-monster — not even the information to confirm that indeed it was a moon rock,” said Monica Davis, Cultural Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia.

The researcher warned the French Cultural Attaché in Cambodia and was referred to Davis, who, at the request of the museum began to search for the origin of the sample.

“It was not immediately clear, this was a moon rock, although its appearance was quite similar to photos of the Apollo 17 on the moon samples,” said Davis collectSPACE.com in a recent interview. “Most of the moon rocks from the Apollo 17 mission came with a plaque with a flag and a quote from the president. It had a wooden stage, so we were not sure whether this was a genuine moon rock or not.”

To ensure authenticity, Davis contacted the Apollo sample curator at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Referring to photos of the lucite-encased rock, the curator said he was “99 percent sure” that was the Apollo 17 goodwill sample. (He would have to run tests to be 100 percent sure.)

“He indicated that the size and shape of the plastic are correct, and the colours and the morphology of the sample and the grains in the sample agree with the other examples,” Davis explained.

At the same time, the Embassy of the united states conducted extensive research in the National Archives and Library of Cambodia, the U.S. Library of Congress and U.S. National Archives, the U. S. State Department, the Nixon Library and the Center for Khmer Studies. After six months of searching, they finally were able to find old US state Department cables about the gift as well as an article from the August, 1973 edition of the “Khmer Republic” magazine about the presentation of the moon rock to the Cambodian government and the circumstances of the ceremony.

Centennial celebration

The rediscovered moon rock exhibition is part of the upcoming 100-year anniversary of the National Museum of Cambodia is to be celebrated in 2020. It is also a symbol of the United States for long-term goodwill towards Cambodia and its people.

“We hope that this exhibition inspires young Cambodians to dream big,” said Newbill. “Don’t let the boundaries of what you think may be in the way.”

In the investigation of the moonstone of arrival, Davis came to recommendations of the us State Department as to what to say to the original presentation.

“This small moon rock is a symbol for the knowledge that is shared by men of science and technology in the course of the centuries, and their quest for knowledge,” read a 1973 cable from the u.s. State Department. “Perhaps the spirit of Apollo, who surmounted the barriers of the deep space for the human being, can ultimately help to break down the barriers between peoples.”

But it is 45 years, moon rock message remains the same.

“The Embassy has priority Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) outreach, and programs to further Cambodia’s development. We hope that visitors are inspired to pursue a STEM career by observing a successful STEM project as the mission to the moon,” said Davis.

“The visitors of the National Museum of the exhibition will also have a better understanding of the enormous challenges that the astronauts on the moon mission had to overcome and how she broke the boundaries of what humanity ever thought was possible,” she said.

See more photos of the National Museum of Cambodia’s moon rock exhibition in collectSPACE.

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