A NASA official has confirmed that attempting to sell moon dust extracted from cockroach stomachs is indeed a problem.
The space agency even asked RR Auction of New Hampshire to halt its sale of the once-digested lunar sample. The lot in question, "Apollo 11 Lunar Soil Experiment (Cockroaches, Slides, and Post-Destructive Testing Specimen)" had been set to fall under the hammer on the 24th of June, as part of the live bidding segment of RR's "Remarkable Rarities" auction.
"NASA asserts legal ownership of the materials consisting of the Apollo 11 lunar dust experiment ... based upon the information and documentation provided in the description of the lot and evidence regarding NASA's contemporaneous contracting practices," an attorney in NASA's Office of the General Counsel wrote RR Auction in a letter on Wednesday, a week after first reaching out to the firm. "It is clear and undeniable that the materials consisting of the experiment are owned by NASA."
Two boxes of tissue slides and three of the remaining (dead) cockroaches were also included in the auction. Brooks had carefully extracted moon dust from the cockroach corpses.
In its initial response to NASA's request to stop the sale, RR Auction asked that NASA explain its decision more clearly, both factually and legally. The firm changed its position after further correspondence.
"As strange as this lot may be, the historic value of the role these cockroaches played in the U.S. space program is unquestionable. While RR Auction takes no position on the legitimacy of NASA's claims, we always seek to cooperate with the U.S. government on its claims of ownership and decided to withdraw the lot to allow the parties to resolve clear title," Mark Zaid, RR Auction's attorney, said in a statement provided to collect.
Prior to the start of the sale, which began on May the 27th, RR Auction had expected the lunar material and cockroaches to sell for as much as US$400,000. At the time when the lot was withdrawn, it had received 12 bids totalling US$36,300.
It wasn't the first time Brooks' Apollo 11 archive had been auctioned. Brooks' family consigned the cockroaches and moon dust to the former Regency-Superior Galleries in Beverly Hills, California, which sold the lot for US$10,000 in 2010.
"NASA is not aware of such auction," NASA's attorney wrote of the sale from 12 years ago. "More importantly, the auction does not make this potential sale of the items proper or legal. The continued sale of these items is an improper and illegal disposition of NASA property."
The decision by RR Auction to pull the lot leaves only two known cases where loose, collected moon material (as opposed to naturally delivered meteorites) has been legally sold. In April of this year, Bonhams auctioned a microscopic sample of Apollo 11 moon dust for US$504,375. In that situation, the lunar samples had been released by NASA to a collector after a series of lawsuits.
Prior to that, three tiny pebbles brought back by the former Soviet Union's Luna 16 robotic probe were sold by Sotheby's for US$855,000 in 2018.