June 24, 2011

NASA Recovers Stolen Moon Dust From Apollo 11 Mission

NASA has recovered moon dust that was stolen from the space agency after the 1969 Apollo 11 mission just before it was about to be sold at auction.

Officials said the dust was smuggled out of NASA by a staff photographer who gathered it from a camera the astronauts used on the lunar surface.

NASA investigators discovered the dust at a St. Louis auction house this month.

It is illegal in the U.S. to possess moon rocks or moon dust.

"It wasn't much to look at, but I will never be that close to the moon again," US attorney for eastern Missouri Richard Callahan said in a statement.

According to the auction material distributed by the U.S. Justice Department, in 1969, NASA photographer Terry Slezak was tasked with processing film from a camera used by Apollo 11 astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong.

He found his hands covered in moon dust as he opened one of the film magazines.  The camera used during the mission had apparently been dropped down to the lunar surface.

Slezak said that incident made him the first person ever to touch moon dust with his bare hands.

He told the New York Times that he cleaned the dust from the darkroom and the film using towels and tape, and then saved a scrap of the tape.

Later, he affixed the scrap of tape to a poster presented to him that was signed by the Apollo 11 astronauts.

He sold the scrap at an auction in Germany in 2001, and told the New York Times he had never been questioned by NASA or other officials.

Federal law enforcement officials learned earlier this month that Regency-Superior Auctions in St. Louis was going to list the dust up for sale.

"It's a speck "” the size of a fingertip," David Kols of Regency-Superior auction house told Times. "But it's lunar material, and since we're not going back to the moon in my lifetime or yours, that makes it worth a lot to some people."

The U.S. Justice Department said in a statement that NASA investigators contacted the auction house, which agreed to remove it from the sale.

The owner agreed to give it back to NASA.

"Upon learning that the material had been stolen from NASA years earlier, she immediately and graciously agreed to relinquish it back to the American people," the U.S. attorney's office said.


Image Caption: Aldrin salutes the flag symbolizing America's victory in the space race. Credit: NASA


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