January 3, 2012
— Heritage, we may have a problem.
That's more or less what NASA told Heritage Auctions of Dallas, Texas recently, in response to their record-setting, $388,375 sale of astronaut James Lovell's Apollo 13 flown checklist.
"NASA has made a claim against astronaut Jim Lovell, claiming that he does not have title to the checklist," Greg Rohan, Heritage's president, told collectSPACE.com in an e-mail.
But the space agency interprets its inquiry differently.
"We haven't filed a claim against [the checklist]," NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs told collectSPACE. "But what we have done is notify the auction house that we are seeking proof of ownership of the artifact."
"In conjunction with that, we've also notified the office of the Inspector General, which would be responsible for any investigation," Jacobs said.
Reached for this story, Lovell said it was inappropriate for him to comment at this time.
Checking the checklist
Heritage auctioned the Lunar Module Activation Checklist during its Nov. 30, 2011 space artifact sale. The 70-page, ring-bound book was used by Lovell during the 1970 moon mission to power up the lunar module Aquarius.
The spacecraft, which was intended to land on the moon, famously became the astronauts' lifeboat after a mid-flight explosion.
Lovell, who for the auction notated the checklist using a Post-It note, believed he had clear title to sell it, says Heritage. (HA)
The checklist drew the most ever paid for a mission-used document due in part to it being featured — in prop form — during Ron Howard's 1995 movie "Apollo 13" starring Tom Hanks as Lovell. "If this paperwork isn't right, who knows where we will end up out here," Hanks, as Lovell, says in the film, referring to the checklist.
Heritage previously said that an "east coast collector" had purchased the artifact, but with its ownership in question, it is now holding onto the checklist.
"Heritage transfers good title on all items it sells so pending the resolution of this matter between NASA and Mr. Lovell, we have suspended the sale and are holding the checklist in our vault," Rohan said.
The checklist was not the only artifact from the 200-item auction that NASA has asked for proof of ownership.
NASA has questioned astronaut Rusty Schweickart's title to this hand controller, which was given to him after Apollo 9. (HA)
"NASA made a claim against a small number of items consigned by the astronauts including Mr. Lovell," Rohan said. "The sale of those items [like Lovell's checklist] has been suspended as Heritage awaits the outcome of the dispute between NASA and the astronauts."
According to Heritage, among the other items now on hold are a lunar module identification plate and a command module rotational hand controller from Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart.
The plate, which was one of three flown aboard the 1969 Apollo 9 mission, had been listed as sold for $13,145. The joystick-like hand controller had been bid up to $22,705.
Heritage described both the ID plate and the controller as having been presented to Schweickart after the mission.
This lunar module identification plate was one of three flown on Apollo 9 and presented after the mission to the crew. (HA)
A fourth artifact, a glove used by the late Alan Shepard to train as commander of the Apollo 14 mission, came from the collection of a "NASA insider" who was given it by the astronaut. The glove had sold for $19,120.
In Lovell's case, he said that he found the checklist while cleaning out a bookshelf after he had donated many of his mission souvenirs to museums and given other items to his children.
"I decided to put this up for auction so that someone who is really interested in this piece of history can enjoy it," he told Reuters before the sale.
Rohan said Lovell believed the checklist was his to sell.
"Mr. Lovell, a national hero with an excellent reputation, warranted in writing to Heritage when he consigned the checklist, that he had clear title to the checklist and that it was his to sell," Rohan said.
This is not the first time NASA has questioned its former astronauts over their right to sell equipment that they kept as mementos.
Last year, NASA claimed it owned a moon-flown camera that Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell had attempted to auction for $60,000 to $80,000. The government took the moonwalker to court asking a judge to declare the camera as U.S. property.
In October, Mitchell agreed to return the camera so that it could be donated to the Smithsonian.
Before settling however, Mitchell argued that NASA had an agreement with the Apollo astronauts to let them keep expendable equipment. Had he not returned the camera as a souvenir, it was destined to be destroyed when the spacecraft it was in was purposely crashed into the moon.
Also contested by NASA, this training glove worn by astronaut Alan Shepard during his training to command Apollo 14. (HA)
A 1973 letter obtained by collectSPACE documents that NASA had indeed discussed its astronauts keeping spent hardware as souvenirs. Written by then-Johnson Space Center director Chris Kraft to Dale Myers, the associate administrator for manned space flight, the list of 23 types of "expendable equipment" considered for transfer to the astronauts included sunglasses, flashlights, toothbrushes and ID plates, but made no mention of cameras.
The letter does include mention of checklists, although as "items to be retained by Johnson Space Center for display or permanent record."
The letter however appears to run counter to what actually happened. Over the past two decades, astronauts from most, if not all of the Apollo missions have sold pages or intact checklists that were used on their respective flights. Lovell himself, earlier sold others of his flown documents without being challenged by NASA.
NASA's query on Lovell's activation checklist is thought to be the first time an astronaut's title to his flight documents has been questioned.