NASA wants its moon dust and cockroaches back.
The space agency has asked the Boston-based RR Auction to stop selling moon dust collected during the 1969 Apollo 11 mission that had been fed to cockroaches during an experiment to determine whether the lunar rock contained any pathogen that would pose a threat to terrestrial life.
The material, a NASA lawyer said in a letter to the auctioneer, still belongs to the federal government.
The material from the experiment, including a vial with about 40 milligrams of moon dust and three cockroaches, was expected to sell for $400,000, but has been pulled from the auction block, RR said Thursday.
All Apollo samples, as stipulated in this collection of items, belong to NASA and no person, university or other entity has 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 on June 15.
We are asking that you no longer allow the sale of all items containing the Apollo 11 Lunar Soil Experiment cockroaches, slides and post-destructive testing specimens by immediately stopping the bidding process, according to NASA.
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 back more than 47 pounds 21.3 kilograms of lunar rock to Earth. Some were 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.
Brooks, who died in 2007, told the Minneapolis Tribune in October 1969 that there was no evidence of infectious agents. According to the article, there was no evidence that the moon material was toxic or had any other ill effects on the insects.
The moon rock and cockroaches were never returned to NASA, instead being displayed at Brooks home. Their daughter sold them in 2010 and they are up for sale again by a consignor who RR did not disclose.
Mark Zaid, an attorney for RR Auction, said it was not unusual for a third party to lay claim to something that is being auctioned.
The early space programs have a track record of pursuing items related to the early space programs, but they have been inconsistent in doing so, according to Zaid. NASA acknowledged in one of its letters that it did not know about the previous auction of the cockroaches experiment items.
We have worked with NASA before and have always cooperated with the U.S. government when they lay claims to items, said Zaid. We want to act appropriately and lawfully at the end of the day. RR Auction is holding onto the lot for now, but ultimately it's up to the consignor to work something out with NASA, he said.