On @ The 90: Investigations, Lawsuits & Islamic Relations – Where is NASA’s Perspective?

In an era where NASA no longer has the ability to launch astronauts on its own, the space agency appears focused on a new effort - investigating former astronaut's ownership rights. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

As China announces plans to expand their own human presence in space, complete with their own space station and moon base, NASA seems more and more involved in battles of ownership over items that former Apollo astronauts used in their historic missions to walk on the moon some 40 years ago. 

Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 14 Lunar Module Pilot and the sixth man to walk on the moon, agreed in a settlement with the U.S. government to surrender a camera last October which he used to document the historic flight.  The government argued that Mitchell was not assigned clear title for the camera and that it was the “exclusive property of the United States.”  As part of the settlement, the camera was given to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum where it will eventually be placed on display. 

Edgar Mitchell, the Lunar Module Pilot on Apollo 14 attempted to sell a camera that was used on his historic flight - an action that resulted in a lawsuit by the government. Photo Credit: NASA

Now, fast-forward to this past week’s news about NASA’s questioning whether or not Apollo 13 Commander Jim Lovell has the right to sell a 70-page checklist from the famed ‘successful failure’ of a mission that includes his hand written calculations – notes which were critical in transferring navigation data from the command craft to the lunar module and guiding the damaged spacecraft safely back to Earth. 

Some might remember this checklist being used in a dramatic scene in the film Apollo 13, where Tom Hanks was writing down these crucial calculations after the explosion which crippled their spacecraft 200,000 miles away from Earth – the real-life checklist in question sold last November for over $388,000. 

The commander of Apollo 13, attempted to sell his checklist from the famous mission. NASA has since questioned his ownership of the historic artifact. Photo Credit: NASA

The checklist is currently in storage pending the outcome of an investigation into whether or not Lovell had title to the checklist to claim ownership, rather than an affidavit he submitted claiming he had clear title. 

“I believe there have been fundamental misunderstandings and unclear policies regarding items from the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Skylab programs, and NASA appreciates the position of the astronauts, museums, learning institutions and others who have these historic artifacts in personal and private collections”, said NASA Administrator and former astronaut Charles Bolden. 

“These are American heroes, fellow astronauts, and personal friends who have acted in good faith, and we have committed to work together to find the right policy and legal paths forward to address outstanding ownership questions.”

The flight manual, similar to this one, included the notes that allowed Lovell and his Apollo 13 crewmates to safely return to Earth. Photo Credit: NASA.gov

There seems to be a fundamental flaw in NASA’s priorities here – our nation’s manned space program is in the midst of a turbulent transitional period where we no longer have a vehicle to ferry our astronauts to and from orbit, where we are losing our long-held reputation as a leader in manned spaceflight and are 100 percent dependent on another nation to fly our astronauts – a nation (Russia) who’s own space program had 5 failed launches in 2011 (fortunately none of those were manned missions).   

Technically the equipment in question does belong to NASA, to the government, but given that old cameras and checklists used on previous missions are what most anyone would categorize as expendable it seems petty to focus on such matters in light of the facts mentioned in the previous paragraph.  The fact that these men, who risked it all to give our country a shining moment in one of our nation’s darkest decades, are being told to cough up decades-old flight manuals and cameras begs to question where NASA’s priorities are. 


Video Credit: Al-Jazeera

To further illustrate a potential problem with where NASA’s priorities are is the July 2010 interview Administrator Bolden participated in with Al-Jazeera television, where he was widely criticized for stating (among other things) that his “foremost” mission as head of NASA is to improve relations with the Muslim world.  How America’s interactions with the Muslim world could advance space travel remains to be seen, how items four decades old in the hands of space legends is something worthy of a lawsuit or investigation – is troubling.

NASA has taken up the habit of investigating rather than honoring many Apollo astronauts. Photo Credit: NASA.gov


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One Comment

  1. Bolden was talking about the priorities for international outreach, not his priorities for the entire space agency. My guess was that he was trying to flatter the host and viewers because NASA has bigger fish to fry in terms of our international relations with Russia, ESA, etc.

    In any event, NASA’s efforts were part of a broader outreach to the Muslim world to try to do some of the damage caused by two U.S. wars in that region. Bolden’s efforts need to be viewed in that larger political context.

    The priorities for NASA as a whole were debated at length by Congress and in the media for two years. Broadly speaking, they involved getting NASA out of the business of flying astronauts and cargo into Earth orbit and focusing it on deep space exploration. They had nothing to do with outreach on scientific cooperation with the Muslim world.

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