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America vs. Astronaut: The Case of the Lifted Lunar Camera

Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell on the Moon, February 5, 1971. Credit: NASA.

Imagine you’re an astronaut. You have what it takes to be selected to fly a mission to the Moon. You train, make the trip, and become one of literally a handful of humans ever to have walked on the lunar surface. And when you leave the desolate beauty of the Moon behind in your Landing Module, and are just about to re-enter the Lunar Orbiter and head for home, you see one of the cameras that you used on the surface. If you leave it where it is it’s going to be lost forever, crashing into the lunar surface with the rest of the lander. If you take it, you’ll be going against standard NASA operating procedure since you hadn’t filled out the proper paperwork beforehand for official mission items appropriated by astronauts. Leave a piece of history behind to be destroyed or salvage it as a souvenir… what do you do?

Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell decided to bring the camera back, and now, 40 years later, his decision is going to land him in court.

Last June, the U.S. government brought a case against the 81-year-old moonwalker after he offered the 16-millimeter Data Acquisition Camera (DAC) up for sale at New York’s Bonhams auction house as part of their May “Space History Sale”. While it was common for Apollo astronauts to be able to keep various pieces of equipment and space suits as mementos after their missions, certain paperwork had to be filled out beforehand… it’s just the NASA way.

The late Donald “Deke” Slayton, head of the astronaut corps in 1971, mentioned this during an interview with the Tuscon Daily Citizen in 1972.

“They give me a list of things they’re going to bring back,” Slayton said. “I give it to the program office and they bring ’em back.”

This Data Acquisition Camera (DAC) was one of two 16mm cameras on the Apollo 14 lunar module "Antares" when it landed on the moon on Feb, 5, 1971. Credit: Bonhams.

The DAC, it seems, was not on any lists handed in by Mitchell. Yet it was never intended to be on the ride back to Earth, either. Rather its destination was to be in the bottom of a crater made by the landing module when it crashed back onto the Moon.

Must have seemed a rather wasteful end for a historic – and valuable – piece of equipment. Were it to go to auction it could have fetched between $60,000 to $80,000.

“We had an agreement with NASA management, that small items that didn’t exceed our weight limitations, we could bring back.”

– Edgar Mitchell to WPTV

Regardless of its value – sentimental or otherwise – NASA’s lawyer claims that Mitchell was contacted several times about returning the camera but never responded. Mitchell’s attorney, on the other hand, argues that too many years have passed for NASA to now claim the camera as stolen property.

When it was brought before a Florida district court judge to have the case dismissed, however, the judge had no option but to side with the government.

“‘It is well settled that the United States is not bound by state statutes of limitation or subject to the defense of laches in enforcing its rights,'” quoted Judge Daniel Hurley of an appeals court ruling. “Defendant’s allegations that NASA intended the camera to be destroyed after the mission or that it routinely awarded used mission equipment to astronauts do not preclude as a matter of law Plaintiff’s contrary allegation that Defendant impermissibly converted the camera.”

Bottom line: the case goes in front of a jury in October 2012.

Read more about this on collectSPACE.com.


A graphic designer in Rhode Island, Jason writes about space exploration on his blog Lights In The Dark, Discovery News, and, of course, here on Universe Today. Ad astra!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Deejay Nunti October 14, 2011, 12:54 PM

    tipical US burocracy BS…

    • Chew Tansy October 14, 2011, 4:48 PM

      “Typical USA bureaucracy BS…”

      Your criticism has more credibility if you spell words correctly.

  • Deejay Nunti October 14, 2011, 12:54 PM

    tipical US burocracy BS…

  • Cam Kirmser October 14, 2011, 1:44 PM

    This is an example of extreme idiocy on the part of the US government. However, I don’t see much of a problem for Mitchell.

    What jury is going to convict him?

  • Joshua Zelinsky October 14, 2011, 2:05 PM

    Mitchell is a bit of an oddball. Even when he was in the Apollo program he had a strong belief in ESP. Since then, he’s also become convinced that UFOs are visiting aliens, and he helped found the “Institute for Noetic Sciences” which tries to study psychic beliefs.

    I’m not that surprised that if any astronaut would have managed to do something like this, not bother to tell NASA what he was bringing back, and then manage to annoy NASA bureaucrats enough to the point where it had to go to court rather than be solved amicably, that it would be Edgar Mitchell.

    • just a decent person October 14, 2011, 5:45 PM

      Just because YOU do not have such beliefs doesn’t mean something is not real. Millions of people have certain abilities, some more so than others. I could tell you that the sky is blue, and it would be only because you’ve seen the sky that you would agree. But I suppose you would still consider me “an oddball” because I say that I’ve had many dreams that have come true. It’s unfortunate that some people ‘have to see it to believe it’, and worse that they resort to name calling and debasing one’s character.

      • Carson Myers October 14, 2011, 6:19 PM

        Whether or not something is true is not a matter of belief. ESP, psychics, premonitions, etc. have failed the test of science. The only reason people believe in them is because they do not understand this, because they dearly want them to be real, or both. It is not unfortunate that some people have to see it to believe it, because otherwise everybody would just operate on hearsay and intuition. Nature isn’t always intuitive, so we have to make sure that something is demonstrably true through vigorous testing and observation before we accept it as such.

      • Joshua Zelinsky October 14, 2011, 8:33 PM

        Whether I have such beliefs or not is irrelevant to whether or not Mitchell is an oddball. I presume you’d agree that such beliefs are not common among scientists and the sorts of people that Mitchell normally would need to interact with. Mitchell’s interactions in that context will be impacted by his beliefs whether or not he is at all correct in his beliefs.

        Oddball is a pretty tame term. You seem to being quite defensive about it.

        Note also that Mitchell himself would likely actually agree with not believing your claims until he had evidence. Indeed, one thing Mitchell has been (quite reasonable about) is helping get funding for ESP research and the like. He does understand quite well the need to do scientific testing of claims and not just accepting claims based on personal anecdotes.

    • Anonymous October 15, 2011, 12:13 AM

      And yet, one of the most famous speeches ever made, was a verse from the bible spoken from the surface of the Moon, religious or not, i’m sure any questions you have about life the Universe and all it’s mysteries would be amplified if you stood on the Moon and gazed out at our little jewel hanging in the void…

      • Joshua Zelinsky October 15, 2011, 2:03 AM

        I have no idea how what you are saying has anything to do with anything. First of all, my comment didn’t mention religion at all. Second, Mitchell was vocal about most of his views well before he went to the moon. Third, everyone else who went to the moon didn’t turn out like Mitchell. Fourth of all, the use of religious language isn’t evidence for religion being accurate or meaningful or useful so much as it is evidence that people who went to the moon happened to be religious.

        I don’t understand why people are responding to my comment by trying to argue about the correctness of Mitchell’s beliefs or other supernatural beliefs. They don’t have anything to do with the central issue: Mitchell has non-standard beliefs and a personality which is not at all standard for an Apollo astronaut. These severely impacted how he interacted and interacts with NASA. This is an observation that would not be reduced in validity at all if Mitchell turned out to be completely correct about everything. (Nor for that matter would it make him less of an oddball.)

  • Anonymous October 14, 2011, 2:30 PM

    Fine, give it back to the government – but they have to destroy it as was intended. If they don’t then they owe Mitchell something for saving it since he used his personal weight allowance to return it.

    • Prof. Michael O. Zimmermann Ph October 14, 2011, 10:01 PM

      very good point!

  • Chris Anderson October 14, 2011, 3:03 PM

    What no one seems to acknowledge is why NASA is doing this (other than to accuse them of being petty bureaucrats): If they let Mitchell get away with this, it sets a dangerous precedent of allowing future astronauts to make off with decommissioned hardware with the intent of selling it later for personal gain. That’s why NASA has a procedure, which Mitchell was well aware of, and still chose to thumb his nose at. Had he not decided to sell the camera for personal gain, NASA would almost certainly have let sleeping dogs lie.

    • Marcin October 14, 2011, 3:36 PM

      And what exactly is wrong with people keeping for themself things NASA is throwing away? It wasn’t dangerous, it was meant to be destroyed. NASA already decided they don’t need it.

      • Ray Fowler October 14, 2011, 7:15 PM

        The article stated that NASA has a normal procedure for this. Declare the item, fill out a form, and NASA approves it (or not).

        HE NEVER DID THIS and then refused to return the camera when NASA asked for it. Frankly, that makes him a thief and, considering the value at which he is selling it, a felon.

        A felon.

        • Marcin October 14, 2011, 8:52 PM

          At most it makes him breaker of internal NASA rules. This camera was meant to be destroyed by throwing it to the Moon. You can’t steal something which is thrown away as useless trash.

          • Ray Fowler October 14, 2011, 11:27 PM

            You are confusing the word “most” with “minimum”

        • Anonymous October 14, 2011, 11:55 PM

          Edgar Mitchell a thief and a felon?

    • Torbjörn Larsson October 14, 2011, 9:41 PM

      So they are blocking a market? And what would be “dangerous”, what would be the harm? If NASA had some foresight, they would be doing this already.

      In fact, it would be much better to sell pieces of the technology instead of giving away for science invaluable moon rocks.

      It is funny that political goodwill can be a useful market commodity bought by those rocks, while capital can’t. Or does US have enough money for its space program?

    • Prof. Michael O. Zimmermann Ph October 14, 2011, 9:56 PM

      Chris, my boy, if the item was found by Russian Cosmonauts on the moon, it would be as if you find a shipwreck in the Mariana Trench and salvaged it… No one would give a hoot about it.
      Mitchell should keep it and do what he pleases with it. Anyway, what is the practical value of this item anyway?

    • Anonymous October 14, 2011, 11:48 PM

      Why wait 40 years to make an example of him?

  • Ray Fowler October 14, 2011, 3:16 PM

    It’s not his camera. It never was his camera. NASA has apparently asked for it back several times and the astronaut is defending himself by citing the statute of limitations for THEFT in order to justify keeping it — I mean, selling it for a profit.

    He is essentially arguing, “yes, I took the camera without authorization but they waited too long to ask for it back. Finders, Keepers”.

    As much as I admire astronauts as a profession, the astronaut in this case really has no ethical grounds for keeping the camera, much less selling it for a profit.

    • Marcin October 14, 2011, 3:34 PM

      Why not? NASA decided to throw it away, he just “picked it up from the trashcan”. It’s not like he stole some equipment NASA was going to use later.

      • Ray Fowler October 14, 2011, 7:10 PM

        Because it doesn’t belong to him and he refused the legal owner’s earlier requests to return it. I learned this lesson in ethics back in kindergarten.

        • Marcin October 14, 2011, 8:50 PM

          From NASA point of view this camera was destroyed 40 years later during impact to the Moon.

          And in my kindergarten if someone threw something away as garbage it was free to grab for anyone. You can’t steal trash.

  • ITSRUF October 14, 2011, 4:06 PM

    This is silly. How much money is the USA going to blow bringing this to court — just to have it dismissed by a jury. Hopefully Mitchell can counter-sue.

  • Anonymous October 14, 2011, 5:53 PM

    — Is it possible that film has mysteries on it that have been reported to me by other Apollo Astronauts? —

    You forgot to take your pills.

  • Anonymous October 14, 2011, 6:05 PM

    What on earth is happening to this world when hereo’s can be penalised for an oversight. NASA should have more important things to do and i hope the jury throws the case out so far NASA will be made to look fools. i thought they were short of money. if they loose this could cost them. amazing.

  • Anonymous October 14, 2011, 6:19 PM

    This whole thing is simply ridiculous! First of all… there’s NO WAY he could have hidden that camera upon landing. Don’t you think someone must have seen it? then simply winked, nodded and let it go like that? Then the ground crew must also be held responsible? What were the actual protocol for handling an astronaut’s “carry-on’s”? Bet there were several… Does he have to pay for the extra bag? LOL!

    As far as this court case goes.. sounds like lawyers getting paid – enough said? How much court time and expense has this ridiculous pursuit cost the American taxpayer?

    Okay then.. HAD the extra weight of this camera caused a problem during re-entry, or somehow endangered the lives of the other astronauts… then MAYBE there would be a case? It didn’t.

    AS far as Edgar Mitchell’s association with the Noetic Society or his personal beliefs are concerned…. GOOD on him for continuing to be an explorer! Whereas, some people are quite happy to put their head’s in the sand and call it good enough – even preferring that to finding their belief systems might be simply an egocentric extrapolation.

  • Ray Fowler October 14, 2011, 7:13 PM

    I can’t believe the irony of a UFO conspiracy believer calling everyone else “dummies”.

  • Prof. Michael O. Zimmermann Ph October 14, 2011, 9:47 PM

    it’s what it always has been, exaggerated bureaucrat-ism… Mitchell is neither a felon, nor is he a thief. And what’s next… is NASA’s Bolden going to ban Mitchell from NASA grounds for life?
    Precedent my butt, is NASA afraid that an astronaut is going to keep a Saturn V after it burns out…. haha
    This whole thing is a joke and waste of taxpayers money!

  • Cam Kirmser October 14, 2011, 10:25 PM

    Mitchell can say he salvaged the camera and have a lawyer examine his options under salvage law.

  • Anonymous October 14, 2011, 11:46 PM

    To pursue something as insignificant as this, that happened 40 years ago, against a person who risked his life for the greater good of science and mankind, who helped to make Nasa a household name around the pale blue planet that Edgar Mitchell saw with his own eyes from the surface of the Moon, is so far beyond ridiculous, it is jaw dropping.
    Nasa’s new low.

  • Jean Ocelot October 23, 2011, 7:52 AM

    Sounds like NASA should be able to confiscate it from him and give it to the Smithsonian.