BOSTON (AP) – NASA wants its moon dust and cockroaches back.
The space agency has asked Boston-based RR Auction to stop selling lunar dust collected during the Apollo 11 mission in 1969 and then fed to cockroaches during an experiment to determine if the moon rock contained some type of pathogen called a threat to terrestrial life.
The material, a NASA attorney said in a letter to the auctioneer, still belongs to the federal government.
The material from the experiment, including a vial containing about 40 milligrams of moon dust and three cockroaches, was expected to sell for at least $400,000 but has been removed from the auction block, RR said Thursday.
“All Apollo samples, as defined in this collection of items, are the property of NASA and no person, university or other entity has ever been authorized to retain them after analysis, destruction or other use for any purpose whatsoever, especially for sale or individual display,” said NASA’s June 15 letter.
It continued: “We request that you no longer facilitate the sale of all items containing the Apollo 11 Lunar Soil Experiment (the cockroaches, slides and post-destructive test specimens) by immediately halting the bidding process,” NASA wrote. †
In another letter dated June 22, NASA’s attorney RR Auction asked to work with the material’s current owner to return it to the federal government.
The Apollo 11 mission returned more than 47 pounds (21.3 kilograms) of moon rock to Earth. Some were fed to insects, fish and other small creatures to see if they would be killed.
The cockroaches that got moon dust were taken 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 lunar material was poisonous or had other ill effects on the insects, according to the article. .
But the moonstone and the cockroaches were never returned to NASA, instead on display at Brooks’ house. Her daughter sold them in 2010 and now they are being put up for sale again by a sender that RR has not disclosed.
It’s not uncommon for a third party to lay claim to something being auctioned, says 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 this regard, Zaid said. By its own admission, NASA acknowledged in one of its letters that it was unaware of the previous auction of the cockroach experiment items.
“We’ve worked with NASA before and have always worked with the US government when it comes to claiming items,” Zaid said. “Ultimately, we want to act appropriately and lawfully.”
RR Auction is holding onto the lottery for now, but ultimately it’s up to the sender to sort something out with NASA, he said.