The case is the latest of many contentious battles between NASA and private citizens over ownership of lunar material.
Image: Chris McHugh/District Court of Kansas
When Laura Cicco was around ten years old in the 1970s, she received one of the coolest presents any kid could wish for: a vial of moon dust from the first person to walk on the Moon, Neil Armstrong himself.
Armstrong, a long-time friend and colleague of Cicco’s father Tom Murray, gifted the vial to her along with a note wishing her the “best of luck,” with his signature and the printed words “Apollo 11.”
Now, some 40 years later, the vial has become the subject of a lawsuit against NASA, filed by Cicco’s Kansas City attorney Chris McHugh on Wednesday, June 6. The suit is a preemptive move to establish Cicco’s ownership of the lunar dust, with the aim of preventing NASA from confiscating it due to the agency’s position that “private persons cannot own lunar material,” according to the filing.
“Astronaut Neil Armstrong gifted the vial of lunar dust at issue to Laura Ann Murray, now Laura Murray Cicco, when she was a child, and she is the rightful and legal owner of the vial and its contents,” the suit claims. “There is no law against private persons owning lunar material. Lunar material is not contraband. It is not illegal to own or possess.”
While analysis of the dust found it has been cross-contaminated with terrestrial material, it was still determined to be a “likely lunar sample” according to Tom Tague of Bruker Corporation, a manufacturer of scientific instruments and industrial analysis contractor. Tague conducted the authentication tests, according to a letter included with the court filing.
NASA has seized lunar samples from private owners in the past. In 2015, for example, Illinois attorney Nancy Lee Carlson purchased an Apollo 11 bag of moon dust for just $995 on a government forfeiture site, then sent it to NASA for authentication. The agency refused to give the bag back, claiming it was government property. Carlson, who was also represented by Cicco’s attorney McHugh, won her lawsuit against NASA in 2017. She sold the bag for $1.8 million at an auction last year.
In another case, Joann Davis, the widow of a NASA engineer, was actually detained by NASA as part of a 2011 sting. The operation was orchestrated after she tried to sell a paperweight containing lunar material which, like Cicco’s moon dust, was gifted to the family by Neil Armstrong.
Davis, then 74, was set up to meet a prospective broker at a local Denny’s, but when she presented the paperweight, she and her second husband were pulled to the parking lot and held for two hours by Norman Conley, a criminal investigator for NASA's Office of Inspector General. The couple were not even permitted to use the bathroom, and Davis urinated in her clothes. This aggressive treatment was a major reason Davis won a subsequent lawsuit against NASA, and received a $100,000 settlement from the government.
Internal NASA documents obtained by Motherboard’s Jason Koebler through a 2015 FOIA request shed light on the agency’s investigatory process for these reports of uncatalogued lunar material.
Emails that Motherboard obtained detail a case about a moon rock “the size of an apple” that was inherited from a Texas A&M University employee, who made necklaces out of the material. Forms from NASA’s Office of Inspector General document that the sample was “recovered” by the agency, and was later determined to be terrestrial in origin, and not an Apollo landing sample.
It’s no wonder, given these many past examples of attempted seizure, that Cicco is trying to get ahead of NASA by establishing clear ownership of the moon dust vial.
Given that well over 100 lunar samples from the Apollo landings have gone missing over the past half-century, it’s not likely to be the last time that NASA and private owners will be squaring off over who has the right to own a piece of the Moon.
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