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Tuesday, Oct 16, 2018
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How much is that vial of moon dust really worth?

A Tennessee woman is suing NASA for the right to keep a vial of what she says is moon dust, given to her by astronaut Neil Armstrong in the 1970s.

The financial stakes in the lawsuit are potentially quite high: Just last summer, for instance, a bag containing a trace of moon dust from Apollo 11 sold at auction for $1.8 million. The Tennessee woman, Laura Cicco, has a lot more than just a trace: "probably 10 to 15 cubic centimeters" of the stuff, her lawyer estimates.

Putting a valuation on that much moon dust is nearly impossible, given the rarity of the material and the legal murkiness surrounding ownership of it (more on that in a bit). But that doesn’t mean we can’t try.

Let us start with how much it costs to get a moon rock. According to NASA, human astronauts have ferried a grand total of 842 pounds of lunar material from the moon’s surface to Earth during the Apollo missions. Unmanned Luna missions sent by the former Soviet Union brought back about three quarters of a pound more. Material from the moon can also end up on Earth in the form of lunar meteorites, but for the purposes of this discussion we are only considering moon rocks brought back by humans and their spacecraft.

In 2003 the federal government actually put a price tag on some of its returned moon rocks, in the course of a criminal case involving a group of NASA interns who stole a safe full of moon rocks from a Johnson Space Center laboratory. NASA assessed the value of the rocks at around $50,800 per gram in 1973 dollars, based on the total cost of retrieving the samples. That works to just a hair over $300,000 a gram in today’s currency.

Let us pause for a little back-of-the-envelope math: If we accept that Cicco has 10 to 15 cubic centimeters of lunar material at an average density of 1.5 grams per cubic centimeter, that means she has 15 grams to 22.5 grams of moon dust, which at $300,000 a gram works out to somewhere between $4.5 million and $6.8 million dollars. Not bad for a vial of dirt.

So there you have it? Not quite.

Just because it cost that much to get a moon rock does not mean someone will pay you that much for said rock. In terms of what people actually will pay for a retrieved moon rock, we have very little data to work from because these things have hardly ever been legally sold.

NASA maintains that "lunar material retrieved from the Moon during the Apollo Program is U.S. Government property." In other words, the government owns it, and you can’t sell it.

"No Apollo moon rock or loose quantity of moon dust has ever been sold legally," said Robert Pearson, who edits collectspace.com, a website about space memorabilia. "There is no specific law that addresses moon rock ownership, but the United States considers the samples to be a national treasure and theft of such falls under the laws applying to theft of government property."

Those guidelines, however, only pertain to lunar material acquired during the Apollo missions. There is also the much smaller quantity of moon rocks brought back by the Soviet Luna missions in the 1970s. Some of that material has made it to legal auction: In 1993, for instance, 0.2 grams of lunar soil from one of those missions sold for $442,500, according to Pearson. Apply that valuation, adjusted for inflation, to Laura Cicco’s 10-15 grams and you end up with a potential price well above $40 million.

But again, Cicco’s soil is allegedly from the Apollo missions, which puts her in a precarious legal position regardless of how it was obtained. In her court filing, Cicco maintains there is "no law against private persons owning lunar material," which is difficult to square with NASA’s assertion of federal ownership of all lunar material.

"This question of private ownership needs to be answered," said Cicco’s lawyer, Christopher McHugh. "I know there are multiple individuals out there with lunar material."

There is also the question of the provenance of the dust. In her filing, Cicco submitted laboratory test results that gave conflicting results as to whether the dust was likely to be of lunar origin. "It may be possible that some dust from the earth became mingled with this likely lunar sample," the analyst concluded.

But Pearson has his doubts. He says the color of the dust in the vial does not look like the color of other samples he has seen, and he says moreover that the quarantine returning Apollo astronauts were subject to would have made it extremely difficult for Neil Armstrong to take any samples home with him after his mission.

McHugh says he "can’t speak to [Cicco’s] plans" as to whether she intends to sell the dust. But if the court rules in her favor and she successfully takes the dust to auction, it could prove to be one of the most - if not the most - expensive pieces of space memorabilia ever sold.

Pearson, for his part, hopes future space exploration will make these questions less fraught. "Perhaps someday in the hopefully-not-too-distant future, humanity will return to the moon and begin delivering quantities of lunar material back to Earth," he said. This year NASA announced that it hopes to return humans to the moon in the next decade.

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