June 03, 1985 12:00 PM

For Robert Haag the obsession was rooted in childhood. When he was only 13 years old, his parents took him on vacation to Mexico. There, one starry night on the rim of the Pacific, the boy stared in amazement as a fireball slashed across the sky and came crashing to earth. Fascinated, he searched the beach for miles but found nothing. It wasn’t until years later, at a mineral show, that he came face-to-face with a mysterious missile like the one he had seen. “I just stood there and stared at this piece of metallic rock that came from an unimaginable distance away,” he remembers. “When I closed my eyes I could still see that first meteorite.”

Now 28, Haag has made that vision his life’s occupation: He is one of the world’s few full-time meteorite hunters. As much a fanatic’s quest as a rational form of employment, his singular mission has taken him from the Sahara Desert to the mountains of New Guinea. He has tangled with bandits and ridden out landslides, and his income is by no means astronomical. Still Haag’s travels have not been in vain. In five years of searching, he has found over 1,000 fragments from 15 different meteorites, ranging in size from a few ounces to 360 pounds, and in value from next to nothing up to $40,000. He donates or sells many of his finds to major museums, the Goddard Space Flight Center and a Defense Department supplier (“I think they use them for laser research”). His own impressive private collection, in his Tucson home, is valued at more than $100,000. “I never thought I’d see the day that I’d spend $5,000 for a meteorite,” he says. “But I’ve done it. I’ve paid $30 per gram. That’s more than the price of gold.”

Although millions of meteorites have been scattered over the face of the earth in its lifetime, most will never be discovered. And though the planet passes through some 25 major meteor showers every year, only a few dozen of the meteorites that survive the friction of entry into the atmosphere land on solid earth. The rest vanish irretrievably into the oceans. Haag is confident that the demand will always exceed the supply. Meteorites may be found anywhere, but he usually hunts for “space real estate,” as he calls it, where major meteorites are known to have fallen. That was how he made his first strike, back in 1978. Library research led him on a journey to Mexico’s remote Pueblito de Allende, where a shower of carbon-rich stony meteorites with an aggregate weight of more than two tons had fallen nine years before. After questioning hundreds of locals, he happened upon a man with 10 tiny meteorites and bought them all.

Size is only one factor in determining a meteorite’s value. The space rocks come in three basic varieties. The most commonly collected are more than 90 percent iron and are attracted to magnets. They are heavier and harder than ordinary rocks. The appearance of meteorites is unique, because as they fall through the atmosphere, friction forms a black crust that in time rusts to brown. Two rarer types of meteorites, stony and stony-iron, can be positively identified through laboratory testing. “They seldom have sharp corners or edges,” says Haag, “and they are usually irregular in form. You find them in the strangest places, often where there aren’t any other rocks around.”

Raised in Tucson in a rock-hunting family, Haag studied geology at the University of Arizona before dropping out after two years. “They never once showed us a meteorite,” he explains. “I wanted to study space rocks, but all they’d show me were earth rocks.” He went to work as a surveyor and mine driller, but spent all his spare time hunting meteorites. He began tracking them full-time in 1979.

Though meteorites themselves are no more dangerous than the average pet rock, Haag has been waylaid twice by bandits in Mexico, where he and a friend were once left tied to trees. But his most frightening moment, he says, came in Spain, when he was checking out a field near the sea and innocently stepped over a low barbed-wire fence. Suddenly he was surrounded by shouting soldiers and barking dogs. “I saw a bunch of submarines,” he says. “It must have been some secret base. I was scared to death, but when they found out I was an American and a tourist, they finally let me go.”

Since his marriage last September to Gina Kline, 23, a store manager he met while exhibiting meteorites at a Tucson shopping center, Haag has been spending less time searching for space rocks and more time selling them. He is slicing some of his meteorites into belt buckles, and has sent a shipment to Singapore to be made into jewelry. Though he hires young people to do much of his looking now, his heart is still in the hunt. “There are so many meteorites out there just waiting to be discovered,” he says. “For example the Port Orford meteorite that fell in Oregon a few years ago is thought to weigh about three tons. If I find it, I could become a millionaire. Of course it’s hidden in dense forest. But there are lots of other space treasures out there just waiting to be found.”

Occasionally a meteorite will announce itself without ambiguity, like the six-pound rock that crashed through the roof of a home in Wethersfield, Conn. two and a half years ago. (It is known in scientific circles as the M*A*S*H meteorite, since the family was watching that program on TV at the time.) But otherwise what should a neophyte look for? “When a meteorite is falling toward earth,” says Haag, “it hisses and whistles as it passes through the atmosphere and leaves a trail of smoke. You hear a sonic boom. It can sound like a machine gun going off or trains crashing. If you hear that, you’re within 30 miles of a fall.” And what if you should actually find that meteorite? “Most people think meteorites are glowing hot when they hit the ground, but they’re not. They’ve been cold-soaked in space for millions of years at minus 200°C. A freshly fallen meteorite may be so cold you can’t pick it up.” But don’t just walk away from it either. “There is an average of one meteorite per square mile on the earth today,” says Haag. “For those who know how to identify them, it’s like-money from the sky.”

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