NASA at the auction house: we want our cockroaches back

Who owns the historic moon dust-eating cockroaches and their stomach contents?

A dispute between NASA and a space memorabilia collector over the ownership of cockroach-digested moondust has led to the cancellation of a planned moondust auction and three dead insects.

The artifacts were part of an unusual experiment involving a University of Minnesota cockroach expert.

In 1969, NASA fed cockroaches moon dust collected by Apollo 11, the first human landing on the moon. The space agency wanted Marion Brooks-Wallace, a university entomology professor, to see if the cockroaches were harmed by space-causing microorganisms.

The insects were fine – other than the fact that they had to be killed to be dissected.

When the cockroaches were taken to the Brooks-Wallace lab, it was the first time material recovered from the lunar mission had landed in Minnesota. “The first lunar soil was brought to cities by dead cockroaches,” so the headline of an October 6, 1969, Minneapolis Tribune article put it.

Brooks-Wallace kept a pinch of moon dust collected from the cockroaches’ bellies, three of the dead insects, and glass slides containing experimental insect samples for viewing under a microscope. She died in 2007 at the age of 89. About three years later, his family reportedly sold the moondust/cockroach artifacts at auction for $10,000.

Recently, the current owner of the materials decided to auction artifacts. RR Auction said it expects bidding to reach as high as $400,000 when live bidding ends June 23 in Boston.

“Taken from the belly of Blatella germanica (German cockroaches), this material has been transformed from moon dust into cockroach chyme (semi-digested food) – a unique rarity in the space market,” according to the auction house.

But when NASA learned of the impending sale, its lawyers contacted the auction house, saying materials related to the experiment still belonged to the space agency. They wanted the bugs and space dust they ate returned to the government.

In letters to the auction house, NASA said that the sale of the materials at a previous auction and the fact that NASA cannot find the contract under which Brooks Wallace received the bugs does not do not mean that the materials may be owned or sold by someone else. .

“All Apollo samples, as stipulated in this collection of articles, belong to NASA and no person, university or other entity has ever been authorized to retain them after analysis, destruction or other use for any purpose. either, particularly for sale or individual display,” according to a letter from a NASA attorney to the auction house.

In response, RR Auction canceled the sale at the last moment.

“We want to do the legal and proper thing,” said Mark Zaid, an attorney representing the auction house.

Zaid said the auction house would hold the bugs until NASA and the current owner, whose identity he would not reveal, resolve the dispute or until the courts settle the matter.

“I imagine they will have negotiations,” Zaid said.

“Who would have thought that dead cockroaches that ingested moon dust were worth $400,000,” Zaid said. “There’s nothing else like it. It’s crazy but believable.”

NASA declined to comment on the matter.