Should NASA stop suing astronauts over the sale of space artifacts?

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Dec 17, 2012

Astronauts have always been allowed to take certain non-essential keepsakes home with them when they complete a NASA mission, but what if they try to sell them? In the last few months the space agency's lawyers have taken aim at three different astronauts attempting to auction off space-flown artifacts, claiming the artifacts weren't the astronauts' to sell.

But are they right? Congress may soon be stepping in to settle the issue once and for all.

The debate started last summer, when Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell put a motion picture camera he kept from the mission up for auction. The camera was expected to fetch up to $80,000, but the auction screeched to a halt when NASA filed suit. Mitchell claimed he and his fellow astronauts had been allowed to keep souvenirs if they weren't intended to remain at NASA. According to the mission plan, had Mitchell not held on to the camera, it would have stayed on the moon's surface inside the Apollo 14 lunar module.

Trouble is, though NASA may have told their astronauts they could keep such items during the Apollo program, they don't seem to have written that policy down. Decades later they set policies governing keepsakes for space shuttle astronauts, but that didn't help Mitchell. In October, he settled out of court, surrendering the camera to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum without having earned a dime.

The issue was raised again in January, when two more Apollo astronauts—Apollo 9's Rusty Schweickart and Apollo 13's Jim Lovell—brought items to the auction block. The gem of the collection was a checklist (pictured above) used by Lovell to convert the Apollo 13 lunar module into a lifeboat during the severely compromised mission. The item fetched a record $388,375 at a Dallas auction house, but the sale was put on hold when NASA's general counsel started to ask questions.

Lovell and Schweickart, along with other Apollo astronauts, met with NASA administrator Charles Bolden back in January in an effort to sort out ownership of the artifacts, but nothing concrete ever came of the talks. Now, a pair of congressmen on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee have introduced a bill to put an end to the debate.

The committee's chairman, Republican Ralph Hall, and ranking member Democrat Eddie Bernice Johnson, both of Texas, introduced the bill to their committee in a March 2 letter, which they titled "Apollo Astronauts Need Your Help." The bill, which they call "common sense legislation," would give full ownership of the artifacts to the astronauts. It would also ensure that the government would "have no claim or right to ownership, control or use of any artifact that subsequently was transferred, sold, or assigned to a third party by an astronaut."

The bill would apply only to astronauts who flew Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions, including the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, and defines an artifact as "any expendable item ... not expressly required to be returned to [NASA] at the completion of the mission and other expendable, disposable, or personal-use items."

Bob Jacobs, a spokesman for NASA, said Friday that the agency would "support whatever legislation comes from Congress," and said the bill is in line with the discussions Holden had with astronauts earlier this year.

So if you happen to have an old toothbrush from Apollo 17 or something sitting around, you might soon be able to put it up for auction without any hassles from the feds.

(via Space)