For a trip to Mars, would you trust your life to people who can't keep track of a rock?

NASA is responsible for all the moon-rock samples; 516 have disappeared

Just in case you're depressed about the economy, the difficulty in finding just the right job in IT, having your intellectual accomplishments outstripped by a stripling or your digital combat skillz dissed by a humanitarian organization, just be glad when you went into a technical profession you didn't end up at NASA in charge of the moon rocks.

Hundreds of samples of dust and rock stayed right where we could see them – on the moon – for billions of years. In the few decades since they were brought back to Earth by astronauts, 516 of them disappeared between 1970 and 2010, according to NASA's Audit Office.

The Johnbson Space Center Astromaterials Acquisition and Curation Office is responsible for about 140,000 samples from the moon, 18,000 from meteorites and 5,000 from solar wind, comets and cosmic dust, according to an auditor's report from the NASA Office of the Inspector General released yesterday (PDF).

NASA loans out the samples to other labs for study; it does this a lot.

At one point in March of this year, about 26,000 of the samples had been loaned out to various universities and labs.

Not all of them came back.

In one case a disk with six samples of soil and rock turned up missing after being loaned to the Mount Cuba Astronomical Observatory in Greenville, Delaware in 1978 and expected it back in 2008.

The investigator who borrowed the disk died some time during the loan period and the Observatory couldn't find the sample afterward, it told NASA.

Losses like that one are the rule, though one researcher alone lost 18 samples in 2010, and another stole 218 samples in 2002; the stolen samples were later recovered.

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 Curation Office records were inaccurate, researchers could not account for all samples loaned to them, and researchers 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 NASA to strengthen its practices and update its policies for loans of astromaterials for

education and public display purposes," the report concluded.

-- NASA’S Management of Moon Rocks and Other Astromaterials Loaned for Research, Education and Public Display, NASA Audit Report, Office of the Inspector General, Dec. 8, 2011

The Office of the Inspector General included a list of reforms, process improvements and policy changes designed to help keep track of the samples.

It's a little surprising an organization able to track a tiny probe across hundreds of millions of miles of space has trouble keeping track of a pile of rocks.

Though, to be fair, once they're launched, rockets and probes obey the laws of physics.

NASA's whole point is to study, visit and predict the behavior of things that obey the laws of physics.

It's probably harder to apply laws to the way humans behave and what they do to change what the rocks would do if left on their own. Applying human laws to the inanimate results of science or technology is just not NASA's gig.

Apparently, neither is record keeping.

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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