Grandma to NASA:Give BackMy Moon Dust

Still smarting over last week's Mars Polar Lander disaster, NASA is taking a fresh PR beating over a confiscated retirement gift that may contain moon dust from the Apollo 11 mission. Oregon child welfare worker Peggy Davis--whose late father, electrical engineer Joseph Healy, received the desk set when he left Houston's Lunar Receiving Laboratory in 1970--claims NASA seized her heirloom and threatened her with prosecution.

"I want it back. It's mine," the 58-year-old grandmother told us yesterday after sharing her story with the "Today" show's Katie Couric and 6 million viewers. "I called NASA a little over a week ago, and John Brasel"--a NASA investigator--"told me that if there turns out to be even a little bit of lunar material in it, 'we intend to prosecute you for trying to sell NASA property.' "

"Peggy Davis is a nice lady, but that's an inaccurate statement," Brasel said before passing the phone to investigative operations manager Pete Roe, who insisted: "NASA policy and federal law do not allow the distribution or possession of lunar material by third parties."

The fracas started two months ago, when Davis sent the desk set (ornamented with a plastic moon rock said to contain real fragments) to Connecticut autograph dealer John Reznikoff. To authenticate the artifact, which he estimates is worth $1 million, Reznikoff contacted NASA, which promptly dispatched an agent from Maryland's Goddard Space Flight Center to retrieve the item for "non-destructive" analysis.

As the controversy escalated, NASA Inspector General Roberta Gross was trying to decide whether to give the gift back. She conceded that no one will ever know whether it contains lunar dust "except by melting it down."

Gross reports to NASA administrator Daniel Goldin, but his spokeswoman says he has nothing to do with the flap. "The inspector general is independent," said NASA communications director Peggy Wilhide, trying to achieve escape velocity.

Burn This After Reading

Secret agents tell us that Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and wife Victoria outdid themselves at last night's "off-the-record" Christmas party, showing up as Austin Powers (Ted wearing a brown wig, horn-rimmed glasses, buck teeth and bright blue polyester suit) and Felicity Shagwell (Vicki in white go-go boots and a hideous paisley dress). Here's some raw intelligence from the Dirksen Building committee room:

Ted: "Brace yourself, baby! My mojo is still going strong."

Vicki: "You're at the stage in life where it's more like 'slow.' "

Ted: "I'm really clicking, baby!"

Vicki: "Your knees are clicking. Your back is clicking. Your elbows are clicking."

Ted: "Ouch, baby! Very ouch!"

Vicki: "I see you've already got your mojo in high gear thanks to those nice little blue pills."

Ted: "[Health care expert] David Nexon always tells me, a shag a day keeps the doctor away. . . . Trent Lott is after my mojo. He won't try directly. He'll probably give the mission to someone else, like his Mini-Me, Don Nickles."

Vicki: "Is Don Nickles out to destroy you?"

Ted: "Does a bear shag in the woods?"

Vicki: "What's your secret for doing so well in politics for so long?"

Ted: "Earth tones, baby! I'm a very alpha male."

Vicki: "More like bulk male!"

THIS JUST IN . . .

* Starting in January, former independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr will teach a weekly class at George Mason University law school--"Advanced Problems in Current Constitutional Law." President Clinton's erstwhile tormentor--who will also be racking up billable hours at Kirkland & Ellis--has been named a "distinguished visiting professor." Starr is "a man of great distinction, and we're pleased to have him," George Mason law school official Dan Polsby told us yesterday, adding that Starr has been hunkered down in the law library doing research for a book on the Supreme Court. The professor didn't return our call.

* Yet another Gail Sheehy critic, former Clinton aide Betsey Wright, has written to the New Yorker that "Hillary's Choice" is "a bloody mess." She adds: "Having been Bill Clinton's chief of staff in Arkansas, I recognized dozens of blatant and serious factual errors in just the first two hundred pages of the book (at which point I stopped reading, because I just couldn't take it anymore)." Yesterday Sheehy told us that Wright is "off the wall." Sheehy added: "I mean, we all saw 'Primary Colors.' "