ST. LOUIS – The few specks of dust stuck to a small swatch weren't much to look at, but federal prosecutors said Thursday that those flecks, which were set to be auctioned off in St. Louis, came from the moon via Apollo 11 and have been sent back to NASA where they belong.
Richard Callahan, the U.S. attorney for eastern Missouri, said the dust is believed to be at least part of what authorities say was smuggled out of Johnson Space Center by a National Aeronautics and Space Administration worker years ago. It was discovered in St. Louis just before it was to be auctioned.
It is illegal for individuals to own moon material, but Callahan's office said the auction consignor was a woman who was not involved in buying the dust and didn't know how it came to her late husband. No arrest was made.
NASA said a preliminary test indicated the dust was, in fact, from the moon, but further testing is necessary and could take 2-3 weeks. Louis Parker, exhibits manager at Johnson Space Center in Houston, said that no matter how small the lunar material, it belongs with NASA.
"In the case of extraterrestrial material, it's invaluable," Parker said. "It's something that needs to stay within a scientific community."
NASA collected 843 pounds of rock and dust during six missions to the moon, Parker said. After the Apollo 11 mission, moon dust was discovered inside the film cartridge of a camera used by astronauts. NASA believes an employee of the center in Houston used a 1-inch piece of tape to capture some of the dust, then smuggled it out soon after the 1969 mission.
Authorities learned the tape was sold to a German collector of space memorabilia in 2001. The pursuit of the missing dust then grew cold, though it is believed the tape was cut into several smaller segments and sold to other buyers, the U.S. attorney's office said. The segment in St. Louis was the first piece found.
Earlier this month, the St. Louis U.S. attorney's office learned that a segment of tape with the dust was going to be listed for auction by Regency-Superior Auctions in its St. Louis office, complete with a "Certificate of authenticity" indicating the dust fell out of the film cartridge. Regency is the oldest and one of the largest auctioneers of space and aviation memorabilia.
NASA investigators contacted Regency. The auction company and the consignor, whose name was not released, both cooperated.
The woman said she was unaware of the history of the dust, and gave it up to authorities. Regency-Superior Auctions president David Kols said the company knew it was illegal to own moon rocks, but not moon dust, and once he learned all lunar material was illegal to possess, the auction was cancelled.
Investigators from Callahan's office retrieved the material last Friday. Callahan kept it in his office for a day.
"It wasn't much to look at, but I will never be that close to the moon again," he said.
Most lunar material is possessed by NASA and kept in a specially built lab in New Mexico, never touched by bare hands. Some also is on loan for scientific study or display.