For most Americans, Edgar Mitchell is a hero. He piloted the lunar module "Antares" from Apollo 14 in 1971. He braved the cold void of space and became the sixth man to walk upon the surface of the moon. He faced a possible disintegration by plunging back through the Earth's atmosphere carrying samples from the orbiting satellite. Who cares if he kept one of NASA's cameras as a souvenir. He deserved it, and most of us would have done the same thing.
Evidently NASA cares. The space agency discovered that the British auction house Bonhams planned to sell the camera at an upcoming Space History Sale. According to Reuters, the item was labeled "Movie Camera from the Lunar Surface" and billed as one of two cameras from the lunar trip. The lot description also identified the camera as the property of pilot Edgar Mitchell and sported a pre-sale estimate of $60,000 to $80,000.
NASA wasn't happy.
In a lawsuit filed in Miami federal court on Wednesday, NASA alleges that Edgar Mitchell illegally possessed the camera and attempted to sell it for profit. "All equipment and property used during NASA operations remains the property of NASA unless explicitly released or transferred to another party," the NASA suit said, adding that it had no record of the camera being given to Mitchell whatsoever.
Is it a case of misplaced paperwork? After all, it's been 40 years since Mitchell returned from space. Mitchell's lawyer, Donald Jacobson, disputes the claim, saying that NASA management approved Mitchell's ownership of the camera right after he completed the lunar mission. "Objects from the lunar trips to the moon were ultimately mounted and then presented to the astronauts as a gift after they had helped NASA on a mission," Jacobson said.
NASA's lawsuit states that it made repeated attempts to contact Jacobson and Mitchell to return the camera, but received no response. Meanwhile, Bonhams removed the camera from the auction block when it caught wind of NASA's lawsuit, stating that the sale was "pending further discussion between NASA and the consignor." The camera was slated to be auctioned off in May.
NASA's lawsuit is asking the court to halt any further attempts to sell the camera, to order its return back to NASA, and to declare that the United States has "good, clean and exclusive title" to the camera. That said, NASA should spend less time and resources on a silly little camera, and more time on actually getting the USA back on the moon. Priorities!