The selling of cockroach-eared Apollo 11 lunar dust is halted by NASA


The results of a 1969 NASA biological test to look for potentially harmful "moon bugs" were pulled from the auction: cockroach carcasses and Apollo 11 moon dust collected from their stomachs.
The results of a 1969 NASA biological test to look for potentially harmful "moon bugs" were pulled from the auction: cockroach carcasses and Apollo 11 moon dust collected from their stomachs. (Image credit: RR Auction via collectSPACE.com)

As it turns out, NASA is definitely bothered by the attempt to market lunar dust made from cockroaches' guts. In fact, the space agency was so concerned that it asked RR Auction of New Hampshire to stop selling the once-digested lunar sample (opens in new tab). As part of the live bidding portion of RR's "Remarkable Rarities" auction, the lot in question, "Apollo 11 Lunar Soil Experiment (Cockroaches, Slides, and Post-Destructive Testing Specimen)," was scheduled to be sold on Thursday evening (June 23).


A week after first contacting the company, an attorney in NASA's Office of the General Counsel wrote RR Auction in a letter: "NASA asserts legal ownership of the materials consisting of the Apollo 11 lunar dust experiment... based upon the information and documentation provided in the description of the lot and evidence regarding NASA's contemporaneous contracting practices." The materials used in the experiment are clearly and irrefutably NASA property.


What is left of the late Marion Brooks' investigation on the physiological effects of lunar material on Blattellas germanica, or German cockroaches, makes up the parcel that is in dispute. In the early aftermath of the 1969 Apollo 11 lunar landing mission, NASA scientists fed the insect's moon dust(opens in new tab). The (now-dead) cockroaches were given to Brooks, an entomologist from the University of St. Paul, for more in-depth analysis after no adverse effects were observed when astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins were kept in quarantine.

Entomologist Marion Brooks' specimen-mount display of her Apollo 11 lunar mementos, including three preserved cockroaches and a sample of the Apollo 11 moon dust removed from within them.
Entomologist Marion Brooks' specimen-mount display of her Apollo 11 lunar mementos, including three preserved cockroaches and a sample of the Apollo 11 moon dust removed from within them. (Image credit: RR Auction)

Three of the remaining (dead) cockroaches, two boxes of tissue slides for microscopic examination, and a little vial of moon dust that Brooks had painstakingly removed from the cockroaches' carcasses were all offered for sale.


RR Auction first declined NASA's plea to halt the auction, requesting that the organization provide a clearer justification for its decision, both legally and factually. After more discussion, the company revised its position.


"No matter how bizarre this collection may look, there is no denying the historical significance of the part these cockroaches played in the American space program. RR Auction decided to withdraw the lot to give the parties time to resolve a clear title, despite the fact that we have no opinion on whether NASA's claims are legitimate. We always work with the U.S. government on ownership disputes "In a statement given to collectSPACE, RR Auction's lawyer Mark Zaid stated.


Before the sale, which started on May 26, RR Auction anticipated that the lunar debris and cockroaches would fetch up to $400,000. The property had received 12 bids totaling $36,300 at the time it was withdrawn. The Apollo 11 material from Brooks has already been auctioned off. Three years after Brooks passed away, in 2010, her family donated the lunar dust and cockroaches to the Beverly Hills, California-based former Regency-Superior Galleries, which auctioned the collection for $10,000.


Regarding the auction from 12 years ago, NASA's lawyer stated, "NASA is not aware of such auction." "More crucially, the auction in no way validates or validates the probable sale of the assets. An inappropriate and unlawful disposition of NASA property is the ongoing selling of these goods."


Only two known instances of loose, gathered moon material (as opposed to naturally delivered meteorites) having been sold lawfully remain as a result of RR Auction's decision to withdraw the lot. A minuscule piece of Apollo 11 moon dust sold at auction by Bonhams in April of this year for $504,375. After a string of litigation, NASA in that case handed the lunar samples to a collector. Prior to that, three small stones returned by the Luna 16 robotic probe of the former Soviet Union were auctioned by Sotheby's in 2018 for $855,000.

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