Who owns historic moon-dust-eating cockroaches and the contents of their stomachs?
A dispute involving NASA and a space memorabilia collector over the ownership of cockroach-digested moon dust has resulted in the cancellation of a scheduled auction of the moon dust and three dead bugs.
The artifacts were part of an unusual experiment involving a cockroach expert from the University of Minnesota.
In 1969, NASA fed cockroaches moon dust gathered by Apollo 11, the first landing of humans on the moon. The space agency wanted Marion Brooks-Wallace, a university entomology professor, to see if the cockroaches came to any harm from disease-causing space microorganisms.
The bugs were just fine — aside from the fact that they had to be killed to be dissected.
When the cockroaches were taken to Brooks-Wallace's lab, it marked the first time material recovered from the moon mission landed in Minnesota. "First Lunar Soil Was Brought to Cities in Dead Cockroaches," was how the headline in an Oct. 6, 1969, Minneapolis Tribune story put it.
Brooks-Wallace saved a pinch of the moon dust recovered from bellies of the cockroaches, three of the dead bugs and glass slides containing samples from experimental bugs meant to be viewed under a microscope. She died in 2007 at age 89. About three years later, her family reportedly sold the moon dust/cockroach artifacts at auction for $10,000.
Recently the current owner of the materials decided to put the artifacts up for auction again. RR Auction said it expected bidding to reach up to $400,000 when live bidding concluded on June 23 in Boston.
"Taken from the bellies of Blatella germanica (German cockroaches), this material has been transformed from moon dust to cockroach chyme (semi-digested food) — a one-of-a-kind rarity in the space marketplace," according to the auction house.
But when NASA got wind of the impending sale, its lawyers contacted the auction house, asserting that the materials connected to the experiment still belonged to the space agency. They wanted the bugs and the space dust that they ate to be returned to the government.
In letters to the auction house, NASA said the sale of the materials at a previous auction and the fact that NASA can't find the contract under which Brooks Wallace received the bugs does not mean that the materials can be owned or sold by anyone else.
"All Apollo samples, as stipulated in this collection of items, belong to NASA and no person, university, or other entity has ever been given permission to keep them after analysis, destruction, or other use for any purpose, especially for sale or individual display," according to a letter from a NASA lawyer to the auction house.
In response, RR Auction called off the sale at the last moment.
"We want to do the lawful and appropriate thing," said Mark Zaid, a lawyer representing the auction house.
Zaid said the auction house will be holding onto the bugs until NASA and the current owner, whose identity he would not reveal, work out the dispute or until the courts settle the matter.
"I imagine they'll have some negotiation," Zaid said.
"Who would've thought dead cockroaches that ingested moon dust would be worth $400,000," Zaid said. "There's nothing else like this. It's crazy but believable."
NASA declined to comment on the matter.