The few specks of dust stuck to a small swatch weren’t much to look at, but according to federal prosecutors those flecks 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 Houston’s 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.
While it is illegal for individuals to own moon material, Callahan’s office said the auction consignor was a woman who was not involved in acquiring 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 two to three weeks. Louis Parker, exhibits manager at the Johnson Space Center, said that no matter how small the lunar material, it belongs to 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 a Johnson employee used a one-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.
Most lunar material is possessed by NASA and kept in a lab in New Mexico, never touched by bare hands. Some also is on loan for scientific study or display.