Miniature bibles that flew to the moon more than 40 years ago are now at the center of a custody dispute between the author who wrote about their history and the state caring for the reverend who was behind their creation.
The two-year moon bible legal battle, which became public on Sunday (Feb. 17) through the reporting of the Houston Chronicle, began in 2010 when the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services (DADS) intervened in a Dallas auction to prevent Oklahoma Christian author Carol Mersch from selling one of the so-called "lunar bibles" at auction.
At issue was how Mersch received the bible. According to court records obtained by the Houston Chronicle, the author got the space-flown scripture from former NASA chaplain and scientist John Stout. Mersch's 2010 book, "The Apostles of Apollo," recounts Stout's founding of the Apollo Prayer League and how hundreds of the microfilmed King James Bibles were flown the moon.
Stout, 91, and his wife, Mary Helen, were declared wards of the state around the same time that Mersch claims she was given the religious space relic to sell for the couple.
A DADS spokesperson told the Chronicle that it was the agency's job to protect the financial assets of its wards.
As Mersch is said to have at least four bibles, at stake is potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars. A December 2012 auction of another lunar bible — unrelated to Mersch — sold for $56,250 at Sotheby's in New York. [NASA's 17 Apollo Missions in Photos]
Glory of the moon
Three hundred of the approximately 1 inch by 1 inch (2.5 by 2.5 centimeter) microfilm bibles flew aboard NASA's February 1971 Apollo 14 mission, the third of six flights to land men on the moon.
The small squares, each printed with the 1,245 pages and 773,746 words of the Christian holy scriptures, were not an official cargo of the space agency. Rather, they were carried by moonwalker Edgar Mitchell as a favor to Stout and the Apollo Prayer League, a group of faithful NASA employees, who, led by Stout, prayed for the safety of the astronauts.
Two hundred of the bibles were kept aboard the Apollo 14 command module "Kitty Hawk," which remained in lunar orbit. The remaining 100 descended to the moon's surface with Mitchell and mission commander Alan Shepard on board the lunar module "Antares" to the Fra Mauro lunar highlands.
Collectively, the bibles became known as the "First Lunar Bible."
It wasn't the first time however, that the bibles had been in space, let alone to the moon. The 300, together with 212 more, first flew on Apollo 13 in April 1970, but as a mid- flight explosion prevented a lunar landing, Stout requested the bibles fly again on Apollo 14. (A single bible also flew on Apollo 12 in 1969, but due to a packaging error, made it only to lunar orbit.)
When Apollo 14 returned to Earth, Mitchell presented the bibles back to Stout, who gave some of the intact bibles and hand-cut 50-page fragments to members of the Apollo Prayer League. The remainder were kept by the Stouts.
Gift or grab
Forty years later, the Stouts were placed into guardianship after investigators deemed their living conditions to be in "deplorable condition," as the Houston Chronicle reported, citing a 2010 affidavit. The elderly couple are now living in a nursing home in Dayton, Texas.
The state is seeking the return of the bibles in Mersch's custody to help support the Stouts' living expenses.
Last October, a judge ruled in favor of Mersch, but Texas has since filed an appeal. Mersch has filed a counter suit in Oklahoma, claiming the bibles were gifted to her by the Stouts.
Mersch told the Houston Chronicle she is acting purely out of concern for the Stouts. She said that in the course of researching her book, she had grown close to the couple.
Jonathan Stout, the couple's son, said he disagrees. "The state is helping them," he told the Houston Chronicle of the involvement by DADS. "The other people are not."
Get the Space.com Newsletter
Breaking space news, the latest updates on rocket launches, skywatching events and more!
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.