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Has NASA gone loony? Moon rocks or bust

MoonReally, NASA? You're hard up for funds, yet you've got the manpower to go after a septuagenarian California woman trying to sell a flyspeck of moon rock -- a supposed gift to her late husband from Neil Armstrong?

Joann Davis of Lake Elsinore had emailed a NASA contractor in May, saying she had "been searching the Internet for months attempting to find a buyer" for her moon gravel, and for a piece of the heat shield of the Apollo 11 capsule. (Davis said her husband, who died in 1986, worked for North American Rockwell, which built Apollo spacecraft, and met Neil Armstrong that way.)

The degree of Davis’ awareness that she was trying to trade in hot space goods is evidently this: She acknowledged to a NASA agent that she worried about someone showing up to take away her items, which, according to the AP, she wanted to sell for "big money underground."

"I’ve been searching the Internet for months attempting to find a buyer," Davis wrote. "If you have any thoughts as to how I can proceed with the sale of these two items, please call," the AP reported.

The planned Denny’s bust was evidently a bust. Davis went home, and the lunar rock-ette went with the authorities. Who ordered the Grand Slam breakfast -- still uncertain.

So. To review. Massive amounts of public money regularly get funneled down the rabbit hole of the military-industrial complex. Corporations write their wish lists and hand them to Congress like kids' lists to Santa, but with better results. The Capitol Hill GOP’s and its presidential candidates’ race to end any sense of commonweal in America treats spending for scientific research and bridges and roads and alternative energy and decent healthcare and even NASA like something to be scraped off the bottom of their Italian shoes.

But a 74-year-old Lake Elsinore woman emails a government agent asking about how she can sell her tiny bit of the moon to pay for her son's medical care -- never mind the question of what kind of country beggars people for getting sick -- and NASA swoops in on her at a Denny's like they’d found Osama bin Laden.

Months after what operatives might have been calling something cutesy like "Operation Moonstruck," no charges have yet been filed against Joann Davis, according to The Times. And if NASA is as smart as a rocket scientist, it won’t.

The bigger matter, as our story points out, is how NASA lost track of the moon nuggets brought back on Apollo missions.

About 842 pounds of moon came back from that orbiting body, and NASA’s handed over hundreds of rocks to government bodies and famous people, in the same fashion that paintings in museums are on long-term loan. NASA, the federal government, still technically owns them. But like Soviet Bloc plutonium, a number of those officially bestowed moon rocks are unaccounted for.

And some moon rocks just disappeared down a virtual black hole. At least one was an inside job: Three interns at the Johnson Space Center spirited away a 600-pound safe, and tried to flog the moon rock contents on the Internet for as much as $5,000 a gram. The FBI busted them in a sting and the three interns were convicted. Davis’ asking price for her moon chunk was said to be $1.7 million.

Is the moon like an Oscar -- you may be able to possess it, but not to sell it?  If not, is anybody asking questions of Armstrong, the first human to walk on another space body? If Davis’ story holds water, was this moon smidgen Neil Armstrong’s to give away in the first place? (Armstrong has denied having or giving away any moon souvenirs.) If he did, why hassle this woman?

Nation, as Stephen Colbert addresses everyone, if this is all that’s left to us of a once-glorious space program –- tracking down its relics rather than questing for new worlds -– we are in a parlous state.

Yet I think Joann Davis may have shown us a way out. If people want to buy moon stuff, NASA should sell it. Sell it literally a few carats at a time. Control the moon-rock market the way diamond conglomerates control the price of sparklers, by controlling the flow.

And use the money to do what Congress won’t do, to fund the nation’s space program -- to infinity, and beyond.

ALSO:

Fixing the economy the scientific way

For Americans, to infinity and beyond

Why we must reinvigorate our interest in science

NASA's shuttle program: An end of an era, or a promising new beginning?

-- Patt Morrison

Photo: Astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, poses for fellow astronaut Neil Armstrong, who shot this photo during their moon walk July 20, 1969. Armstrong and the Apollo 11 lunar module are reflected in Aldrin's visor. Credit: Neil Armstrong / NASA / AP Photo

 

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The Opinion L.A. blog is the work of Los Angeles Times Editorial Board membersNicholas Goldberg, Robert Greene, Carla Hall, Jon Healey, Sandra Hernandez, Karin Klein, Michael McGough, Jim Newton and Dan Turner. Columnists Patt Morrison and Doyle McManus also write for the blog, as do Letters editor Paul Thornton, copy chief Paul Whitefield and senior web producer Alexandra Le Tellier.



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