The assignment, at first, seemed beyond ridiculous. Moon rocks? Yeah, whatever, thought Martinique Wilkins.
She is working on her master's degree in criminal justice through the University of Phoenix, the online college. She is 28, works as a security guard in Las Vegas and, like anybody, has seen weird things before.
But this? Find missing moon rocks for a class in the administration of criminal justice? What's one got to do with the other?
Her professor, a lawyer in Texas, also is a former federal agent with NASA's Office of Inspector General. Joseph Gutheinz said he likes to give his students real world experiences. There's only so much you can learn about doing an investigation from reading a book.
So, he knew he needed to come up with an investigation the students could really do. But what kind? Investigations can be dangerous. He thought back on his own career, and the answer was obvious.
He posted his assignment on Nov. 17: "Hi class. I have assigned you each a moon rock to investigate and write about. Please find your moon rock under 'moon rock assignments' located in the course materials forum. Good hunting!!!"
And with that, Wilkins and the rest of the students went on an adventure.
A little history here. When astronauts returned from the Apollo 11 and Apollo 17 missions to the moon in 1969 and 1972, fragments of moon rocks were given to each state and to dozens of countries as a good will gesture.
The federal government kept most of the rocks brought back, but never bothered to keep track of the pieces given out.
So, lots of them got lost. Or stolen. Or who knows what.
"Most of the moon rocks that we gave away to the nations of the world are gone," Gutheinz said. "They've been stolen. The countries don't have a clue where they're at."
In 1998, Gutheinz, who was with NASA, was working cases of scammers selling fake moon rocks to gullible rich folks. He and his partner adopted undercover identities and placed an ad in USA Today saying they wanted to buy moon rocks.
Soon enough, they were contacted by a guy who said he had the real thing. Indeed, he did. He somehow had gotten ahold of the moon rock that had been given to Honduras in 1973. He wanted $5 million for a rock that weighed barely more than a paperclip.
The rock was eventually recovered and returned to Honduras.
But through his investigation, Gutheinz found out that most of the rocks given to the states were unaccounted for, too. Mostly, no one knew where they were.
Which is where the idea for his assignment came from. He assigned each student a specific moon rock to locate.
Wilkins, who moved to Las Vegas a few years ago after graduating from Indiana University, was assigned the one given to Pennsylvania after the Apollo 11 mission.
That was it, pretty much.
What to do first? Try the governor's office.
There, a receptionist had no idea. She sent Wilkins to someone with the historical museum commission. Wilkins couldn't reach her.
So she Googled. She started with museums. Planetariums. Who might have it?
One thing led to another, but everyone she talked to had no idea what she was talking about. More calls followed, more dead ends.
She was sent to a nice guy at the state archives who didn't know a thing. Try the state collections museum, he said.
Wilkins got ahold of someone there, who explained that state budget cuts were devastating the staff. Someone would get back to her soon.
She called her professor, who made a call or two himself to see if he could speed things up.
Soon, Wilkins got an e-mail. Both the Apollo 11 and Apollo 17 moon rocks in Pennsylvania were found, at the State Museum of Pennsylvania, where they apparently had been overlooked for who knows how long.
So what, right? A few phone calls, a little Googling, no big deal. How do you call that an investigation?
Gutheinz said it takes persistence and patience to get things done. That's what an assignment such as this teaches. It also had the added value of doing a public service.
Findings from this and other investigations into the location of the moon rocks have been posted online, at www.collectspace.com.
Though not all of the moon rocks have been found, most of them have, often by Gutheinz' students.
The Pennsylvania rocks, in fact, were put in storage after Wilkins helped discover they were on display with, apparently, little security.
Wilkins is overjoyed that she had a part in preserving a bit of history. "To be able to find a piece of history is just amazing,"
Contact reporter Richard Lake at email@example.com or 702-383-0307.