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House passes moon rock bill

September 27, 2000 — Between the years of 1969 and 1972, astronauts on six Apollo missions retrieved 842 pounds (382 kilograms) of rocks, core samples, pebbles, sand and dust from the Moon. For their haul, these 12 moonwalkers (and six command module pilots) were heralded as international heroes, receiving honors from almost every nation in the world.

Yet they were never permitted to keep a sample of the surface they alone had visited. Now, it looks like that is about to change.

On September 26, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the "Apollo Exploration Award Act of 2000" that orders NASA to "design and present an award to the Apollo astronauts," including the provision that "a lunar rock sample shall be the central feature of the award."

"The only fitting commemoration for those who have touched the moon or made that great achievement possible could be a piece of the moon itself," said the bill's author, Representative Mark E. Souder (R-Indiana) in his address to the House.

The bill awards by name 32 Apollo astronauts (including the crew of the ill-fated Apollo 1) with a lunar specimen. In the case of the 10 lunar explorers who have already passed away, the award will be presented to their closest living family member or heir.

Taking into consideration the relative rarity of lunar specimens and to insure the rocks do not ultimately find their way to auction, the bill places restrictions on the transfer of the award.

Once awarded, it cannot be sold or transferred for profit, nor may it be inherited by anyone other than a family member of the astronaut. If the award is not inherited or in lieu of that, has not been transferred to a museum or nonprofit institution, ownership of the sample reverts to NASA.

In addition, the space agency is granted the authority in the bill to recall a sample for scientific purposes so long as the lunar rock is returned promptly or a replacement specimen is issued.

Given the above conditions, NASA has still expressed concern that tracking the lunar sample would be difficult and therefore has opposed the passage of the act.

Representative Souder's press secretary, Angela Flood, defended the bill in a phone interview with collectSPACE. In addition to the fact the legislation does not require NASA to track the specimen, Flood questioned why the space agency was citing difficulties.

"NASA already tracks the loan of about 10 lunar samples per week to educational institutions," said Flood.

Regardless of NASA's concerns, the Act, which was first introduced on the 30th anniversary of the Apollo 11, July 20, 1999, passed the House by a vote of 419 to 0 (with 15 members abstaining). It will now await a similar (if not identical) bill to be introduced and passed in the Senate before being sent to the president to be signed in as law.

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