Apollo Astronauts Meet with NASA to Clear Claims on Space Mementos

NASA Apollo 17 Artifacts
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (at left) and Apollo 13 astronaut James Lovell, seen here at the U.S. Naval Institute in September 2011, met again on Jan. 9, 2012, this time to discuss the ownership of space artifacts. (Image credit: U.S. Naval Institute)

Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell and a few of his fellow Apollo astronauts were in Washington, D.C. on Monday, where they met with NASA to address "misunderstandings" over the ownership of the mementos they kept from their missions.

Their meeting at NASA Headquarters with Administrator Charles Bolden, a former shuttle astronaut himself, came after the space agency questioned the $388,375 sale of one of Lovell's Apollo 13-flown checklists last December.

NASA's request for the proof of ownership for the 70-page, ring-bound book, along with other artifacts — including two pieces of equipment offered by Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart — resulted in Dallas-based Heritage Auctions halting the transfer of the items to their winning bidders.

"These are American heroes, fellow astronauts, and personal friends who have acted in good faith," Bolden said of Lovell, Schweickart and the other astronauts who joined them at the meeting. "We have committed to work together to find the right policy and legal paths forward to address outstanding ownership questions." [NASA's 17 Apollo Moon Missions in Pictures]

NASA's inquiry and the resulting hold that it placed on the checklist's record-setting sale was first reported by collectSPACE.com last Tuesday (Jan. 3). The space agency's general counsel first informed the auction house of its concerns on Dec. 1, 2011, the day after the sale had been held.

Joining Lovell and Schweickart at Monday's meeting were moonwalkers Charlie Duke and Gene Cernan, as well as other former astronauts' representatives.

A checklist used by Apollo 13 commander James Lovell to power-up the “lifeboat” lunar module that saved his and his crewmates lives sold on Nov. 30, 2011 for $388,375 at an auction in Dallas, Texas (Image credit: Heritage Auction Galleries)

Fundamental misunderstandings

Although the former astronauts and Bolden did not reach a solution during the meeting, they recognized the need to work together to resolve this issue.

"We discussed how to resolve the misunderstandings and ownership questions regarding flight mementos and other artifacts," Bolden said in a statement released Monday. "I believe there have been fundamental misunderstandings and unclear policies regarding the items from the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Skylab programs."

"NASA appreciates the position of the astronauts, learning institutions, museums, and others who have these historic artifacts in personal and private collections," he said.

At potential issue are not just the four artifacts that NASA questioned from the November auction but all of the flight-used equipment that the astronauts retained after their missions in the 1960s and '70s. In the decades since, the retired astronauts have donated some of their mementos to museums and sold others to private collectors.

Those donations and sales went largely unchallenged by NASA until recently. If NASA's independent investigative arm, the Office of Inspector General, were to decide that Lovell's and Schweickart's artifacts were still government property, it could raise concerns about all the artifacts that were previously transferred by the astronauts.

Bolden said that he recognized the need to clarify NASA's artifact policies as promptly as is possible.

"We [will] explore all policy, legislative and other legal means to resolve these questions expeditiously," he said, "and clarify the ownership of these mementos, and ensure that appropriate artifacts are preserved and available for display to the American people."

Exploring the evidence

That this has become an issue now, four decades later, is due in part to the way in which mission-used equipment was given to the astronauts soon after their missions. In many cases, no formal title transfer was ever drafted as NASA's policies concerning the mission mementos were largely unwritten at the time.

Since the news broke last week about NASA's inquiry into the astronauts' auctioned items, collectSPACE.com, its readers and others have been searching for information that supports either the astronauts' or NASA's ownership of the artifacts.

Continue reading at collectSPACE.com about the evidence supporting ownership of the astronauts’ artifacts.

Follow collectSPACE on Facebook and Twitter @collectSPACE and editor Robert Pearlman @robertpearlman. Copyright 2011 collectSPACE.com. All rights reserved.

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Robert Z. Pearlman
collectSPACE.com Editor, Space.com Contributor

Robert Pearlman is a space historian, journalist and the founder and editor of collectSPACE.com, an online publication and community devoted to space history with a particular focus on how and where space exploration intersects with pop culture. Pearlman is also a contributing writer for Space.com and co-author of "Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space” published by Smithsonian Books in 2018. He previously developed online content for the National Space Society and Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, helped establish the space tourism company Space Adventures and currently serves on the History Committee of the American Astronautical Society, the advisory committee for The Mars Generation and leadership board of For All Moonkind. In 2009, he was inducted into the U.S. Space Camp Hall of Fame in Huntsville, Alabama. In 2021, he was honored by the American Astronautical Society with the Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History.