NASA wants moon dust, cockroaches returned

Mark PrattAP
Moon dust from the 1969 Apollo 11 mission, which NASA insists belongs to the US government.
Camera IconMoon dust from the 1969 Apollo 11 mission, which NASA insists belongs to the US government. Credit: AP

NASA has called for the return of its moon dust and cockroaches.

The space agency has asked Boston-based RR Auction to halt the sale of moon dust collected during the 1969 Apollo 11 mission.

The dust was subsequently fed to cockroaches during an experiment to determine whether the lunar rock contained any sort of pathogen that posed a threat to terrestrial life.

In a letter to the auctioneer, a NASA lawyer said the material still belongs to the US government.

The material from the experiment, including a vial with about 40 milligrams of moon dust and three cockroach carcasses, was expected to sell for at least $US400,000 ($A576,000), but has been pulled from the auction, RR said.

"All Apollo samples, as stipulated in this collection of items, belong to NASA and no person, university, or other entity has ever been given permission to keep them after analysis, destruction, or other use for any purpose, especially for sale or individual display," said NASA's letter dated June 15.

"We are requesting that you no longer facilitate the sale of any and all items containing the Apollo 11 Lunar Soil Experiment (the cockroaches, slides, and post-destructive testing specimen) by immediately stopping the bidding process."

In another letter dated June 22, NASA's lawyer asked RR Auction to work with the current owner of the material to return it to the federal government.

The Apollo 11 mission brought more than 21.3kg of lunar rock back to earth.

Some was fed to insects, fish and other small creatures to see if it would kill them.

The cockroaches that were fed moon dust were brought to the University of Minnesota where entomologist Marion Brooks dissected and studied them.

"I found no evidence of infectious agents," Brooks, who died in 2007, told the Minneapolis Tribune for an October 1969 story.

She found no evidence that the moon material was toxic or caused any other ill effects in the insects, according to the article.

But the moon rock and the cockroaches were never returned to NASA, and were instead displayed at Brooks' home.

Her daughter sold them in 2010, and now they are up for sale again.

It is not unusual for a third party to lay claim to something that is being auctioned, said Mark Zaid, a lawyer for RR Auction.

"NASA has a track record of pursuing items related to the early space programs," although they have been inconsistent in doing so, Zaid said.

NASA acknowledged in one of its letters it did not know about the previous auction of the cockroach experiment items.

"We have worked with NASA before and have always co-operated with the US government when they lay claim to items," Zaid said.

RR Auction is holding on to the lot for now, but it is up to the current owner to work something out with NASA, he said.

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