Unanswered questions fill the cosmos: Are there infinite universes? Why does something exist? How much would you pay for moon dust digested by a cockroach?
On this last mystery, humanity was close to an answer this month. Then NASA lawyers stepped in.
Three insects have been auctioned online – with moon dust they were fed as part of an experiment in 1969 to observe the effects of lunar material on life on Earth.
Bidding for the auction, billed as “a one-of-a-kind Apollo 11 rarity,” began May 25 and reached $40,000, said Bobby Livingston, executive vice president of auction house RR Auction. historical and spatial memories. .
The price was expected to rise much higher at a live auction on Thursday at a hotel in Cambridge, Mass., but company officials canceled it after NASA claimed the experiment belonged to the ‘agency.
In a letter dated June 15, the agency called the sale of the items “improper and illegal” and said that “no person, university or other entity has ever been authorized” to retain samples from the mission. Apollo. NASA has also asked the auction house to help identify the owner.
So what could the vaunted space agency, which has an annual budget of $24 billion, want with a few dead insects, the contents of their innards and a few grains of lunar matter? A NASA spokeswoman declined to comment, saying it was an ongoing legal matter, but a 2018 audit by the agency’s inspector general provides some insight.
The agency lost a “significant amount” of its assets due to its “lack of proper procedures”, according to the audit. He found that while NASA had made improvements over the past six decades, recovering assets had often been difficult for the agency due to its reluctance to claim ownership and inadequate records management.
Due to NASA’s poor record keeping, the agency lost possession of a bag that astronaut Neil Armstrong had used to collect moon rock samples, the audit found. The little white bag was auctioned off at Sotheby’s for $1.8 million in 2017. A few years ago, a prototype Lunar Roving Vehicle was spotted by a tipster in a residential area of Alabama. A scrap yard owner ended up auctioning it off for an undisclosed amount.
“NASA has a long history of not properly tracking and vetting its historic space objects,” said Mark Zaid, an RR Auction attorney who owns historic memorabilia, including a piece of the rope used to hang the object. assassin of former President James Garfield.
“It was no surprise that we finally heard from NASA,” Mr. Zaid said. “But they are so inconsistent. We never know which object will raise a specter and which will not.
The story of the cockroach experiment begins on July 20, 1969, when two members of the Apollo 11 crew – Mr. Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin – became the first human beings to walk on the moon. During their historic mission, they collected 47 pounds of lunar material to bring back to Earth for study.
NASA wondered if lunar soil would be toxic to life on Earth. So he gave the material to 10 “lower animals,” including fish and insects, for 28 days and called in researchers across the country to assess the effects, the journal Science reported in 1970.
A few German cockroaches that had been fed the moon diet ended up in the lab of Marion Brooks, an entomologist at the University of Minnesota. She found no evidence that moon dust was toxic to cockroaches, according to an October 6, 1969 Minneapolis Star Tribune article.
At the end of the experiment, the professor took the cockroaches and their stomach contents home, where she kept them until her death in 2007.
In 2010, his daughter, Virginia Brooks, sold the materials. She said in an interview on Friday that she couldn’t remember how much they sold, but it was nowhere near $40,000. It is unclear if the person who purchased the materials from him is the same person who listed the items for sale with RR Auction. The auction house keeps the name of the private seller.
Mr Zaid said NASA’s concerns were “enough” for the company to cancel the auction. He said RR Auction had made the owner aware of the dispute and wanted him and the space agency to “find out the problem”.
“The government has a legal provenance issue in this matter because it cannot, at this point, produce any of the documents governing the transaction of supplying the cockroaches to the doctor and the University of Minnesota,” he said.
What’s more, Livingston said, the lunar material was “intentionally destroyed” when NASA gave it to the cockroaches. “It was the cockroaches, not the moon dust, that were supplied to Dr Marion Brooks,” he said.
A University of Minnesota spokeswoman did not immediately respond to an email request for comment. Mrs. Brooks, Dr. Brooks’ daughter, also searched for a contract governing the experiment but found none.
She went to her basement and opened a fireproof safe which contained files about the experiment. There was a plaque that NASA had given to her mother, several newspaper clippings about the experiment, and a $100 NASA check stub that had also belonged to her mother.
Ms Brooks said she had no regrets about the amount of money she received for the experiment. She thought it was a good deal at the time. Plus, she says, “they were just cockroaches.”
Alain Delaqueriere contributed to the research.