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Full Coverage: Apollo rail sale alerts NASA

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Apollo 11 rail sale proceeds despite NASA

August 28, 2000

— A piece of Columbia, the spacecraft which carried astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins to the Moon, was sold at auction on August 27, despite an on-going investigation by NASA.

The 18.5- by 3-inch metal handrail, described by auction house Butterfields as "the only legitimate Apollo artifact that has been offered to the public," registered a high bid of $34,500, including a 15 percent buyers premium.

The unknown buyer however, may not be able to keep his newest possession for very long.

After being alerted to the auction by an article in the San Francisco Examiner, NASA's Office of the Inspector General began an investigation over the sale's legality.

In an interview with collectSPACE before the auction, Samuel Maxey, the NASA assistant inspector general for investigations, expressed hope that the agency would be able to resolve the issue before the sale proceeded.

However, as of today, the case remains open.

In order to proceed with the auction, NASA and eBay's Butterfields reached an agreement whereas if the space agency ruled the handle was to be returned, the auction house would refund the money to the buyer.

At the heart of NASA's investigation is the validity of a Memorandum of Understanding between NASA and the nonprofit International Vet Medical Foundation (IVMF). Signed in 1973, the document, which was included as part of the auction lot allegedly assigns title to the handle to IVMF in return for a 10-year study of the metal rod's radioactivity.

When NASA might release their ruling is unknown.

In addition to the handle, the auction also included two pieces of LA001, the 14th confirmed Martian meteorite, which was discovered just last year. The larger of two specimens, about one-sixth of an ounce (4.5 g) sold for $13,800, including the buyer's commission.

NASA investigates Apollo 11 auction

August 24, 2000

— A handle that was once attached to the spacecraft that carried astronauts to the first landing on the Moon will be sold at auction on August 27.

That is, if NASA does not intervene first.

The 18.5-by-3-inch (47-by-7.6-centimeter) metal handrail was one of four installed on the outside of the Apollo 11 command module, Columbia. In an emergency situation, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would have used the handles to navigate along the outside the craft.

The mission was successful however and the astronauts were returned safely to Earth. After a thorough inspection by NASA, Columbia — handrails and all — was donated to the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.

Or so everyone thought.

"We took it as the real Columbia," said Michael Neufeld with the museum's space division. "It's always the case that there may be backup equipment in place of the flown equivalent, but overall its overwhelmingly authentic."

As it turns out, at least one of the handles, which one Neufeld does not know, is indeed a replacement. The original is now labeled Lot 1128 in Butterfields' upcoming "Natural History" auction.

How the handrail became separated from its place in the world's most popular museum begins with the revelation that the small metal rod is radioactive.

To help the astronauts locate the handgrips, especially while the moon's shadow, NASA installed two very small disks filled with an even smaller amount of the isotope Promethium 147 and phosphor in the handrail's mounting brackets. When the two chemicals were mixed, the disks would glow. A similar method was used inside to assist the astronauts finding the light switches.

Following policy, NASA removed the radioactive material including the handrail, during a post-flight inspection. The offending hardware would normally have been discarded, but given an interest in whether there might be a radiation leak in the vacuum of space, NASA decided to have the handle tested.

As the Butterfields' auction catalog describes, NASA partnered with the not-for-profit International Vet Medical Foundation (IVMF) to "study the effectiveness of the sealant barriers confining the radioisotopes." IVMF was asked to measure leakage over 10 years and report their findings.

Citing the length of the study, NASA reportedly assigned ownership of the handle to IVMF with the condition that if the seals did not hold, the hardware would be disposed of safely.

The IVMF filed its final report with NASA more than 20 years later: "Since the isotope in the disks has decayed through 10 half-lives of radioactivity, the IVMF believes it safe for exhibition in accord with [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] regulations."

Now the IVMF is selling the handle through Butterfields.

"When I first heard [of the handle], my first reaction was 'Oh, yeah, how can they prove it's from Apollo 11?'" said David Herskowitz, Butterfields' natural history specialist, in a phone interview with collectSPACE. "But they sent me all the documentation and in my opinion it is the only legitimate Apollo [11] artifact that has been offered to the public."

The paperwork Herskowitz refers to is a Memorandum of Understanding between NASA and IVMF, dated in June 1973. The document, which will be included with the sale, transfers title to the handle from NASA to the non-profit organization and is certified by agency representatives.

"Remember this was 30 years ago so a lot of people that were [at NASA] then are not there now," Herskowitz explained. "So they aren't aware of everything they have done in the past."

Indeed, NASA was unaware of the transfer and auction until an article appeared in the San Francisco Examiner questioning the legality of both.

And now the space agency is investigating.

"The investigation is still open," said Samuel Maxey, the assistant inspector general for investigations at NASA Headquarters.

"We spoke to two different people in two different divisions at NASA. We forwarded our documentation to both," said Herskowitz.

Regardless of the status of the investigation, Butterfields is proceeding with the sale on August 27. The rail, which the auction house estimates is worth $20,000 to $30,000, is being offered among a collection of meteorites and a recovered Russian fuel cell.

Herskowitz said he would be "shocked" if NASA were to demand the handle be returned.

"Very few things are ironclad, but we have the transfer of title. If NASA were to say 'we want it back' it would be a legal nightmare."

"It is [NASA's] intent to resolve this," said Maxey.

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