WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama ended a months-long fight over NASA relics this week when he signed into law a bill that confers full ownership of early NASA artifacts to the astronauts that took them as souvenirs.
The legislation follows a public-and sometimes bitter-battle between NASA and its astronaut corps over the sale of keepsakes from the agency’s earliest days, most notably the nearly $390,000 auction of a systems checklist from the infamous Apollo 13 mission.
NASA lawyers challenged the sale on the grounds that mission commander Jim Lovell didn’t have clear ownership of the 70-page checklist, which was crucial in helping the Apollo 13 crew survive an in-space explosion.
That challenge prompted widespread condemnation from NASA’s earliest astronauts, who argued that agency rules from that era allowed them to keep souvenirs, unlike NASA fliers in the modern era.
To settle the fight, lawmakers introduced a bill making clear that astronauts from the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions could keep mementos such as checklists, flight manuals and training gear-with the exception that “lunar rocks and other lunar material” belonged to NASA.
The bill sailed through Congress, and Obama signed it on Tuesday.
“I am pleased we were able to work in a bipartisan, bicameral way to clear up any ambiguity regarding small mementos kept by our nation’s early space pioneers,” said U.S. Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas, chair of the House science committee.
The legislation also clears the way for NASA’s first astronauts to sell their artifacts-though the status of the Apollo 13 checklist remains uncertain.
Heritage Auctions of Dallas, which oversaw the checklist sale, subsequently voided the transaction and returned the checklist to Lovell.