The House has passed, on a bipartisan basis, HR 4158, a bill that would allow Apollo era astronauts to retain ownership of certain artifacts that they acquired as a result of their space missions decades ago.
What the bill does
HR 4158 mandates that astronauts who served in the United States space program from Mercury through the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project that flew in 1975 will be allowed to retain ownership of certain artifacts that they acquired as a result of flying space missions as well as personal items brought on those missions. Artifacts are defined as any item used in the space mission that were not specifically required to be returned to NASA. These include "personal logs, checklists, flight manuals, prototype and proof test articles used in training, and disposable flight hardware salvaged from jettisoned lunar modules." Lunar materials are specifically excluded from the definition of artifact.
Why the bill
In the press release announcing the passage of the bill, House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Ralph Hall, R-Texas, noted that the men who flew on the early space missions that culminated with the moon landings are American heroes and should be allowed to retain certain items obtained over the years as part of their service in the early space program. In a November 2011 post, NASA Watch's Keith Cowing notedthat NASA's policy toward compelling retired astronauts to return space artifacts has been somewhat inconsistent. The bill just passed the House will clarify that policy.
NASA leans on Edgar Mitchell to return camera
According to a July 2011 story in Space.com, NASA sued Apollo 14 moonwalker Edgar Mitchell to return a camera that was used in that mission that he proposed to sell at auction. It was the position of NASA that artifacts used in the Apollo missions were the rightful property of the space agency and the United States government. Eventually the matter was resolved when Mitchell gave the camera to the Smithsonian.
Apollo 13 hero Jim Lovell gets into trouble
Jim Lovell, the commander of the Apollo 13 mission that almost didn't make it back, ran into some trouble with NASA when he sold a checklist he had carried on that mission at auction for $388,000, according to Fox News. The checklist has Lovell's handwriting on it, including calculations to be imputed into the command module's navigation computer that were necessary to bring Apollo 13 and her crew safely home. The same story noted that NASA also raised questions about a number of other artifacts sold at auction, including, "a lunar module identification plate that brought more than $13,000 and a hand controller that received a $22,705 bid" that was sold by Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweikart and a glove worn by Alan Shepard while training for Apollo 14 that fetched $19,000.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.