Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Moon Rock and a Hard Place

Though some spent last week preparing for their last days on Earth, one California woman was more preoccupied with the moon. This weekend brought news of a NASA sting operation after the unidentified woman offered a “moon rock” for sale on eBay. Undercover NASA agents met the would-be seller in an area Denny’s and offered to buy the lunar treasure for $1.7 million, then detained her for questioning and seized the rock.

So is it a question of fraud? Could be, if the rock turns out to be phony. But the woman could also face legal trouble even if the rock is authentic. As it turns out, astronauts who visited the moon during various NASA missions in the 1960s and 1970s did collect a number of rock samples, some of which were given in commemorative plaques as “goodwill” gifts to 135 foreign governments and the 50 U.S. states by Presidents Nixon and Ford. As the London Times explained in 2004, those samples are legally considered the cultural property of the recipient government, and other samples located in the U.S. are classified as national treasure under NASA Policy Directive 7100.10D (since renumbered as NPD 7100.10E).

Over the last four decades, many of the goodwill gifts have made their way to the black market, and some have also made their way to the courts: check out the descriptively-named case of U.S. v. One Lucite Ball Containing Lunar Material, 252 F.Supp.2d 1367 (S.D. Fla. 2003), involving a similar lunar pebble which had been gifted to the government of Honduras and was later smuggled into the United States. (NASA’s 2003 annual report assures us that the ill-gotten treasure was eventually returned to its rightful place in Honduras; see the news and a photo on page 17. Curious to know where all those other chunks of the moon are now? The website CollectSPACE maintains a table of known locations around the world. Many of the goodwill rocks have fascinating stories, including North Carolina’s own, which lived “in a desk drawer” at the state Department of Commerce before finding its way to storage at Raleigh’s Museum of Natural Sciences, where it is scheduled to be displayed when the museum’s new Nature Research Center is completed.)

Only time will tell if the California pebble-peddler had a genuine lunar sample or a very expensive fake. In the meantime, you can learn more about the laws and regulations governing galactic travel in several places. Space-related legislation was recently codified into the new Title 51 of the United States Code (see earlier Blogson post); it’s currently incorporated in the unofficial versions on LexisNexis and Westlaw and the annual bound Supplement IV to the official USC. NASA regulations can be found in Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations, including 14 C.F.R. 1217.106 (2010), which reassures astronauts that they won’t need to fill out any pesky customs declarations for artifacts which are brought back from space. And the library has a number of books on space law, which can be found in our online catalog with a subject heading search.

For help finding more materials online or in the library about this fascinating field, be sure to Ask a Librarian.