NASA's Management of Moon Rocks and Other Astromaterials Loaned for Research, Education, and Public Display

Press Release From: NASA Office of Inspector General
Posted: Thursday, December 8, 2011

image NASA Inspector General Paul K. Martin today released an audit examining NASA's controls over loans of moon rocks and other astromaterials to researchers, exhibitors, and educators. NASA's collection of astromaterials includes approximately 140,000 lunar samples, 18,000 meteorite samples, and about 5,000 solar wind, comet, and cosmic dust samples. These samples constitute a rare and limited resource and serve an important role for research and education. As of March 2011, NASA had more than 26,000 astromaterial samples on loan.

NASA has experienced the loss and theft of astromaterials since lunar samples were first returned by Apollo missions in 1969, including 18 lunar samples lost by a researcher in 2010 and 218 lunar and meteorite samples stolen from a researcher at Johnson Space Center in Houston in 2002. These latter samples were later recovered. According to NASA records, 517 loaned astromaterials have been lost or stolen between 1970 and June 2010.

The Office of Inspector General (OIG) audit found that NASA lacks sufficient controls over its loans of moon rocks and other astromaterials, which increases the risk that these unique resources may be lost. Specifically, we found that NASA records were inaccurate, and that researchers could not account for all samples loaned to them and held samples for extended periods without performing research or returning the samples to NASA. In addition, although NASA recently improved controls over loans to educators, we identified additional opportunities for the Agency to strengthen its practices and update its policies for these loans.

Using NASA records, the OIG performed an inventory of astromaterial samples on loan to 59 of the 377 researchers in the United States (this group represented 16 percent of U.S. researchers with loaned materials and 23 percent of all NASA astromaterial samples on loan as of early 2011.) In examining this group of 59 researchers, we found that:

- Eleven of the 59 researchers (19 percent) could not account for all samples NASA records indicated had been loaned to them or possessed samples that, according to NASA records, had been destroyed or loaned to other individuals.

- NASA records included hundreds of samples that no longer exist as well as loans to 12 researchers who had died, retired, or relocated, in some cases without NASA's knowledge and without returning samples.

- NASA officials did not ensure that loaned research samples were efficiently used. For example, the OIG learned of one researcher who still had lunar samples he had borrowed 35 years ago on which he had never conducted research.

To improve controls over its loans of these precious materials to researchers, the OIG recommended that NASA: (1) establish detailed procedures for safeguarding loaned materials; (2) require loan agreements for all types of materials and strengthen the agreements currently in use; and (3) establish procedures for tracking retention periods and ensuring that researchers timely use and promptly return loaned samples. We also recommended NASA evaluate practices for ensuring inventory procedures are effectively implemented and consistently followed and strengthen its inventory verification process.

To improve controls over loans for education and public display purposes, we recommended that NASA establish an effective tracking system and annual inventory requirements for long-term loans; review all long-term loan agreements to identify expired agreements and either renew the agreements or recall the exhibits; and review and update all relevant policies.

NASA concurred with our recommendations and promised to take corrective action.

The full report can be found on the OIG's website at under "Reading Room" or at the following link:

Please contact Renee Juhans at (202) 358-1220 if you have questions.

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