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Obama recently enacted a bill confirming astronauts’ ownership of artifacts from Apollo-era missions.
The new law (H.R. 4158) grants pre-shuttle-era astronauts full ownership of artifacts brought home from completed missions. The bill is a reaction to recent legal action taken by NASA general counsel to block the sale of artifacts by Apollo 13 commander James Lowell and Apollo 9 pilot Rusty Schweickart. The most valuable item–Lowell’s Apollo 13 checklist–was slated to sell at almost $400,000 until NASA challenged the title. NASA’s counsel claimed that without proper documentation, Lovell did not have the right to own, donate, or sell the checklist.
Ralph Hall (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, introduced the legislation to clear up the ambiguity regarding the ownership of these artifacts. Hall said he was pleased to help these “heroes who took extraordinary risks to establish American preeminence in space.” The bill cruised through Congress, garnering a unanimous vote from the Senate and Obama’s blessing to become law on October 5th of this year.
Sorry affluent rock collectors–the bill specifically excludes “lunar rocks and other lunar material,” and limits “artifacts” to equipment that NASA did not require astronauts to return after space flight. It generally covers items meant to be disposable (like a toothbrush) or intended to be left on the moon.
NASA appears reluctant to make this general policy, however. The bill only applies to astronauts between the first American manned space flight (Alan Shepard on Mercury-Redstone 3) and the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. NASA policy now states that mementos may only be kept if NASA determines “they have no value for operations, research, analysis, or other related purposes.”
Do earlier astronauts really deserve ownership of mementos more than Shuttle or ISS-era NASA rocketeers? While it seems likely that this legislation is simply a patriotic attempt to avoid burdening our heroes with embarrassing litigation, the policy behind the bill applies to contemporary missions as well. Are our latest astronauts any less heroic? Let’s let them keep their space toothbrushes.
Interestingly, the status of Lovell’s checklist remains uncertain despite the law. The $400,000 sale never went through.
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