Astronaut Dale Gardner Holding a "For Sale" Sign On a Spacewalk

Image by Chris Christner

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.

Michael Silliman

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7 Responses to Obama Lets Astronauts Keep Their Toothbrushes

  1. Tracy Hancock says:

    I agree with Mike R. The fact that NASA only wanted the item when it saw the astronaut profiting seems a little shady. That being said, I do think NASA should have the right to claim anything it gave the astronauts as long as it does so immediately upon their return to Earth.

  2. Jacob Marshall says:

    I wonder how applicable the policy behind the law really is to current/recent missions. It isn’t an issue about whether current astronauts are “less heroic” but rather that current agreements are less lax. When the initial missions occurred, nobody knew that those items would become important parts of our history (interest in the checklist grew because of its importance in an Apollo 13 scene). Current missions have that benefit of hindsight, where property rights are probably clearly laid out in employment agreements. The policy behind the current law is predominately filling a void created by poor anticipation of these issues; ideally, the gov’t won’t face these issues for a second time.

  3. Mike Ritter says:

    It seems to me, that if NASA wanted the checklist back, and has asked for it immediately following the mission, they probably could have gotten it. Instead, they ignored the checklist and only decided they wanted it when they realized – years later – that it had some value. Therefore, it seems like NASA abandoned it, and the astronaut decided to take it home. It also seems that if the government is going to supply equipment for a mission, it should be entitled to take it back. I like the current law though, which makes clear that if the government doesn’t ask for it back, the astronauts can keep it.

  4. Samantha says:

    This is a very intriguing post. I can see both sides. My initial reaction was, “Of course astronauts own their toothbrushes.” However, the more I thought about it, the more I could see the other side of the argument, especially since a toothbrush would only be worth something because of the context – a context created at least partially by NASA. The toothbrush went into space and back and would not have done so without NASA. I think Emma’s suggestion of splitting the difference is a good possible solution. It will be interesting to see if this policy is expanded.

  5. Emma Stephens says:

    Perhaps we could split the difference by allowing astronauts to keep their personal mementos if they wish, but if they choose to sell items, we could encourage (or require) donations of a portion of the profits to a related cause.

  6. J.P. Urban says:

    Astronauts are essentially real American super heroes, and allowing their toiletries to be sold at auction is like giving away Batman’s utility belt. If Astronauts are humanized like this, we lose something of the enigma that was the first space explorations. American children in the sixties saw the Apollo missions on their televisions and aspired to be just like those white-suited space explorers. We’ve already lost the shuttle program, and if we ever want Americans again to make some small steps for man, allowing the program to be reduced to a $400,000 hygiene product is a leap in the wrong direction.

  7. Michael Dearington says:

    Mike – Very interesting post! I tend to agree with you, and I also think allowing such sales will contribute to a richer understanding of NASA and this country’s history, not only through the prism of scientific advancement, but also through humanizing our astronauts so as not to forget the real sense of fear and unknown they endured. (They, just like we, apparently had to brush their teeth and keep personal check lists!)