Bibles flown to moon stir ownership dispute

Ten microfilm Bibles once launched hundreds of thousands of miles into space sit landlocked today inside an Oklahoma courthouse while a legal battle rages in two states over who is the rightful owner of the celestial keepsakes.

Eight of the 10 tiny holy books in dispute landed on the surface of the moon during NASA's 1971 Apollo 14 mission, carried in a pouch by astronaut Edgar Mitchell. Each isn't much larger than a postage stamp and contains all 1,245 pages of the King James Bible. Etched onto each strip of film at such a small size, its words must be viewed through a microscope, save for two: "HOLY BIBLE" at the very top of the slide.

Shooting the scriptures into the heavens was the brainchild of the Apollo Prayer League, formed in the late 1960s to pray for the success of the space program. A novel idea at the time, flying a Bible into space led to the trend of sending other souvenirs spaceward: pocket change, LEGO figurines, and even a lightsaber wielded by the "Star Wars" movies' Luke Skywalker.

An ongoing slog in Texas and Oklahoma courts encapsulates the complexity of what to do with space relics: Connecting with the cosmos seems cool, but figuring out what to do with them can get costly and contentious back on Earth.

Co-founded by the late NASA chaplain John M. Stout, the prayer league took its mission statement from Mark 16:15 literally: "Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature." After the Apollo 14 mission, Stout gave many of his valuable artifacts away to family or friends, squirreling away the rest in his tiny Texas apartment.

Now, these "first lunar Bibles" are stored at the Tulsa County courthouse, awaiting a May 3 hearing over who owns them — Texas or Tulsa author and businesswoman Carol Mersch, who befriended Stout in 2009 while working on a book about attempts to land a Bible on the moon. Mersch claims the late chaplain gave her the Bibles while she wrote the book, and she keeps a certificate of authenticity signed by Stout and Mitchell as proof.

But that hasn't been good enough for Texas, whose attorneys argue that Stout and his wife became wards of the state in their twilight years after their son, Jonathan, raised concerns about his parents' deteriorating mental and physical well-being. She died in 2014; he passed away in December.

In the view of the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services, as represented by the state attorney general, that means the Jonathan Stout should inherit the Bibles. Estate-related legal wrangling has locked Texas and Mersch in the six-year fight.

Jonathan Stout didn't reply to numerous messages and emails seeking comment on the case. Spokeswomen for the Texas disability services agency and the attorney general's office declined to comment, citing the pending lawsuit.

Texas' attorneys have accused Mersch of cheating Stout out of the Bibles. Mersch, who estimates she's racked up $500,000 in legal fees so far, said in a recent interview that the thought she would "steal an elderly couple's priceless artifacts for personal gain is unconscionable."

Mersch recently spoke to The Associated Press in the study of her home, surrounded by walls lined with framed pictures of astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong. Other pictures are autographed by Mitchell, who took the miniature Bibles to space, and Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon. Mersch said if she wins, she'll donate some of the Bibles to museums or seminaries around the world, per the chaplain's wishes. She wants the Tulsa Air and Space Museum to get one.

"The idea of America taking the Bibles to the moon, it was an incredible adventure," said Mersch, a NASA buff who sold her internet and technology companies for millions before writing "The Apostles of Apollo," published in 2013. "It's a little-known story that needs to be told, and putting them in museums is a way to preserve their legacy."

The author isn't the only one who believes the Bibles are valuable.

Since the Apollo missions, some have found their way to noted auction houses. Hobby Lobby president Steve Green paid more than $56,000 for one at Sotheby's in 2012 for his family's traveling Bible collection, according to published reports. Others — some with dubious provenance — have fetched from $20,000 to $75,000 or more at auction. A copy from the Apollo 14 mission was recently advertised on Ebay for $10,000.

Bobby Livingston, the executive vice president at Boston-based RR Auction, which has sold $20 million in NASA-related merchandise since 2011, said collectors clamor for such memorabilia because the feats of the early space program "captured the imagination" of a generation.

"That's why we collect these things and why these things are memorable; you and I will never know what it's like to stand on that lunar surface and look back," Livingston said. "It's like the greatest achievement of mankind in the second half of the 20th Century."