Call it the Edgar Mitchell bill.
The U.S. House has approved legislation that would grant astronauts of the Apollo era and earlier the right to keep crew patches, flashlights and a lot of other souvenirs from their historic missions.
The mementos have become the subject of a heated battle between astronauts and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which would rather see many of the items --which can command six-figure prices from private collectors --in a museum.
The astronauts were told long ago by NASA that they could keep the memorabilia, only to find the agency demanding their return decades later, according to the bill’s sponsors.
“This stuff had been properly given to us and who are these young jerks, excuse the word, 40 years later saying you can’t have this stuff,” said Mitchell, who flew on Apollo 14 and was the sixth man to walk on the moon.
“All of the astronaut corps was up in arms,” he said yesterday in a telephone interview.
Mitchell said NASA sued him over a camera that he salvaged after his 1971 mission to the moon.
The astronauts-rights bill now heads to the Senate for consideration.
NASA Spokesman Bob Jacobs declined to comment. Agency administrator Charles Bolden said in January there had been “fundamental misunderstandings and unclear policies” over who owned what. The agency would search for a solution that would “ensure that appropriate artifacts are preserved and available for display to the American people,” he said in a press release.
Space memorabilia can fetch thousands from collectors. In 2009, a plastic disc-shaped star chart used by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on their 1969 Apollo 11 moonwalk went for $218,000.
Mitchell agreed to give up his disputed camera, which he said he retrieved from a lunar module that was to be destroyed, rather than battle the government in court. It went to the Smithsonian Institution’s Air and Space Museum in Washington.
“It really wasn’t worth spending a year in court and $100,000” in legal expenses, he said.
The bill, approved on a voice vote, declares that the government has no right to items that aren’t explicitly required to be returned to NASA and “other expendable, disposable and personal-use items.”
That may include personal logs, checklists, flight manuals and other items. It wouldn’t apply to moon rocks and other lunar material.
“These men are heroes,” said Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Ralph Hall, the Texas Republican who sponsored the bill.
“They took extraordinary risks to establish American preeminence in space, and by doing so helped our country become a world leader,” said Hall. “It is a miscarriage of justice that today NASA should seek return of these very same mementos.”
The bill, H.R. 4158, would apply to Apollo, Gemini and Mercury crews.
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