Why a Tennessee woman is suing NASA for her moon dust
In 1972 or thereabouts, Laura Murray's mom handed the 10-year-old a glass vial full of gray dust and a note.
"To Laura Ann Murray — Best of luck — Neil Armstrong Apollo 11."
The girl was told it was moon dust, a personal gift from the first man to step on the lunar surface and a friend of Laura's dad.
The girl wasn't too impressed.
"I was more interested in Barbie dolls and riding my bike," she recalled this week.
Now, nearly five decades later, Laura Murray Cicco wants to make sure NASA won't try to take the precious dust away from her.
A suit filed Wednesday in federal court in Kansas seeks to establish her ownership under the Declaratory Judgment Act of the United States Code.
"Laura was rightfully given this stuff by Neil Armstrong so it's hers and we just want to establish that legally," said Chris McHugh, the Kansas City attorney who filed the case.
Though NASA has not tried to claim ownership, Cicco filed her suit proactively against the agency because its position is that all lunar material belongs to the nation.
In 2016, a U.S. District judge in Wichita ruled in favor of a collector who bought a space bag that was mistakenly placed in an online government auction. It turned out to contain moon dust. McHugh also represented the collector in that case. The bag sold at auction last year for $1.8 million.
Cicco lives in Tennessee but her case was filed in Kansas because of that case. McHugh has requested a jury trial in Wichita.
The federal case spells out the connection between Armstrong and Cicco's family.
Before Armstrong was an astronaut and commanded the Apollo 11 mission in 1969, the first manned landing on the moon, he was a Navy aviator in the Korean War aboard the aircraft carrier USS Essex.
After leaving the space program, Armstrong taught in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Cincinnati.
Tom Murray, Cicco's father, had been a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II and trained pilots for the B-17 Flying Fortress.
In 1969 or 1970, the Murray family, with only child Laura, moved to Cincinnati. Apparently, Armstrong and Murray became close enough friends that the former astronaut signed his note to Cicco on the back of one of Murray's business cards. The lawsuit says the signature has been authenticated by an expert as Armstrong's.
To be honest, Cicco doesn't remember Armstrong.
"My father knew many important people," she said. "I was a child. I met a lot of people."
Looking back, Cicco now realizes that her father and Armstrong, both pilots, must have had a special bond.
Cicco's parents kept the vial safe among their important things and it wasn't until after they had both had died that she found it, about five years ago, in a cedar chest.
"I said, 'Oh my gosh,' and everything came back," Cicco said.
An exhibit filed with the lawsuit contains results from testing of the dust by the Bruker Corp., an analytical company in Massachusetts.
They said an X-ray diffraction spectroscopy indicated the sample was consistent with the known composition of lunar dust while an X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy showed the chemical composition was not consistent with lunar dust.
Analyst Tom Tague speculated that some dust from Earth became mingled with this "likely lunar sample."
The lawsuit suggests the contents of the vial "were vacuumed or otherwise collected from the space suit of an astronaut who operated on the moon."
McHugh said the vial of dust, with its rubber stopper, was moved to Kansas to be in the district for the court case. He said it was secure.
"I can assure you I know exactly where it is," McHugh said.
If the court rules in their favor, Cicco said she and her husband, Chris, have not decided whether to keep the dust as a family treasure or to explore what it may be worth.
"We're taking each day one day at a time," Laura Cicco said. "This is a huge adventure that we're going on. We really have not thought that far in advance. We're very quiet people and the main thing is that I have ownership to it."