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Disputed 'lunar bibles' land with Oklahoma author after state cedes claim

One of 300 microfilm editions of the King James Bible that flew to the moon on board NASA's Apollo 14 mission. (collectSPACE)
May 8, 2017

— A six-year custody dispute over miniature bibles carried by a NASA astronaut to the surface of the moon has ended with a state agency dropping its claim to the lunar artifacts.

The Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services, or DADS, abandoned its pursuit of the religious lunar relics in late April, just days before a court hearing was due to rule on the disposition of the microfilmed King James Bibles, which had been carried by the late moonwalker Ed Mitchell aboard NASA's Apollo 14 mission in 1971. Accordingly, an Oklahoma judge ordered that the small printed squares be returned to Tulsa-based author Carol Mersch, according to the Associated Press.

The judge's edict came just a month after a similar bible, flown around the moon on the problem-plagued Apollo 13 mission in 1970, was also returned to Mersch as part of a related, but separate ruling.

"Apostles of Apollo" author Carol Mersch with Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell and a flown bible display in 2005. (Carol Mersch)

At issue had been whether Mersch had been legally gifted the well-traveled bibles by a former chaplain whose idea it had been to send them (and others) to the moon, or if they belonged to the reverend's son. Mersch insisted that she was provided the artifacts by John Stout, a former chaplain and scientist, in the course of researching her 2010 book "The Apostles of Apollo," which recounted Stout's story, his founding of the Apollo Prayer League in the 1960s, and the flights of the so-called "First Lunar Bibles."

The Apollo Prayer League, a group of NASA employees who prayed together for the safe flights of the astronauts, collaborated with crew members on the Apollo 12, 13 and 14 missions to fly the microfilm bibles to the moon. Three hundred of the 1 by 1 inch (2.5 by 2.5 cm) film squares, each printed with the 1,245 pages (and 773,746 words) of the Christian holy scriptures, were launched with Mitchell's personal items on the third mission to land humans on the moon.

Out of the 300 bibles that Mitchell delivered to lunar orbit, 100 descended to the moon's surface on the lunar module Antares on Feb. 5, 1971.

(The 300 bibles that flew aboard Apollo 14, along with 212 more, first flew with Apollo 13, but that mission's mid-flight explosion prevented a landing and so they were re-flown. A single bible also flew on Apollo 12, but a packaging error led to it staying in lunar orbit.)

When Mitchell returned to Earth, he gave the bibles back to Stout, who in turn presented some of the intact squares and numerous 50-page fragments to the members of the Apollo Prayer League. A small number of remaining bibles were kept by the Stouts.

Four decades later, Stout and his wife, Mary Helen, were deemed unable to care for themselves and declared wards of the state under the auspices of the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services. According to Mersch, Stout had already given the lunar bibles to her, almost two years before the state became involved.

Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell (left) presents Rev. John Stout of the Apollo Prayer League with a package of flown lunar bibles.

The dispute between DADS and Mersch first came to the public's attention in 2013, three years after the state put a halt to Mersch's attempt at selling an Apollo 13 bible given to her by the Stouts. The state subsequently sought all the bibles in Mersch's possession, including eight that landed on the moon's surface on Apollo 14.

At first, the agency claimed title to the bibles to protect the Stouts' financial assets and to potentially provide a funding source for the couple's care. In the years since they were flown, Apollo 14 bibles have sold at auction for upwards of tens of thousands of dollars each.

After Stout, 94, died in 2016 (following the death of his wife two years earlier), the state continued to assert title to the bibles, arguing they should be inherited by Stout's son.

With her title to them now resolved, Mersch said she plans to honor Stout's wishes and donate some of the bibles to museums or seminaries, the Associated Press reported.

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