Why a Tennessee woman is suing NASA for her moon dust
NASA does not want to argue with a woman who claims she is the owner of a vial of moon dust that is being kept at a secret location in Kansas.
The space agency filed a motion in late August to dismiss, on various legal grounds, a June lawsuit by Laura Cicco, who says the dust was a childhood gift from first-man-on-the-moon Neil Armstrong. Cicco is asking a federal court to affirm her ownership before NASA can snatch her precious artifact away from her.
It’s been known to happen.
“On a spring day in Lake Elsinore, California, seven law enforcement officers acting on NASA’s behalf went into a Denny’s restaurant and seized, searched, questioned and held a 75-year-old woman ... until she urinated herself, because she was in possession of a moon rock about the size of a grain of rice,” according to a response this week from Cicco’s attorney.
In that case and at least one other, NASA has contended that all lunar material is the property of the government and that private persons cannot own it.
Cicco’s father had been a friend of Armstrong’s and the astronaut reportedly gave the 10-year-old girl a glass vial of gray lunar dust and a hand-written note signed “Neil Armstrong Apollo 11.”
Cicco forgot about it until she came upon the vial and note in a cedar chest after both her parents had died. Now she wants to make sure she gets to keep it. Thus the motion in court for declaratory judgment.
NASA responded to the lawsuit by arguing the agency has not tried to take the vial away from Cicco, so it’s a hypothetical issue.
Cicco’s attorney, Christopher McHugh, is not buying that.
“It appears to be the Government’s position that the threat to Mrs. Cicco is not ‘immediate or real’ enough ... until NASA is at her doorstep with a warrant,” he wrote in response.
McHugh added that NASA could simply disclaim any interest in the dust and the lawsuit would go away.
NASA also argues that there is no reason for the lawsuit to be filed in Kansas as the events that gave rise to it did not occur there.
McHugh has an answer to that, too.
“The events giving rise to the claim in this case occurred on the moon,” he wrote. “While venue there does have its appeal, I am going to need a ride.”
Cicco lives in Tennessee. The reason the lawsuit was filed in Kansas — the dust is being kept there while the suit is pending — is that the federal court in Kansas has had experience with lunar material.
The former director of the Kansas Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, Max Ary, was convicted in 2005 of selling museum property for his personal gain. Space memorabilia seized by the feds included a lunar sample bag used by Armstrong to collect dust and rocks. The bag, still with lunar traces, later was inadvertently put up for auction online by the U.S. Marshals Service.
It and some other stuff was purchased for $995 by an attorney in Illinois, who sent it off to the Johnson Space Center in Houston for authentication. NASA said the bag was real, it was theirs and they were keeping it. The attorney went to federal court — in Wichita — and NASA lost. The attorney last year resold the bag at auction for $1.8 million.
The woman who was subjected to the sting by federal agents in Lake Elsinore in 2011, Joann Davis, wanted to sell a paperweight containing a tiny moon rock. Her late husband, who had worked as a NASA contractor, reportedly received it as a gift from Armstrong.
After the agents seized the rock, a federal court ruled that lunar material is the property of the government and Davis could not prove it was not stolen. But the court also ruled that Davis could sue for wrongful detention.
In his response to NASA’s motion to dismiss the Cicco suit, McHugh noted that his client “is in possession of substantially more lunar material (than Davis was), and wishing to avoid arrest, the search of her person, and other discomfort and public humiliation, has brought her dispute with NASA to this Court for decision.”