Editorial | On Artifacts, Congress Gets it Right

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The U.S. law confirming that NASA’s Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts have full ownership rights to certain artifacts and mementos from their missions is a small bright spot in a legislative year that otherwise has provided little to cheer about.

Signed into law Sept. 26 by U.S. President Barack Obama, the bill, H.R. 4158, clarifies a gray area concerning ownership rights to items from the most historically significant era of human spaceflight: the period from the program’s beginning through the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz docking, and including of course the Apollo Moon landings in between. Among the items covered by the law are personal-use and expendable items such as mission checklists, astronaut logs, flight manuals, training articles and salvaged disposable flight hardware.

Introduced in March by Reps. Ralph Hall (R-Texas) and Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, the legislation was prompted by challenges from the NASA general counsel and inspector general to attempts by astronauts to sell their mementos. Ambiguity concerning ownership rights to these items led NASA in January to block the planned sale of a checklist used by Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell.

Profiting from the sale of historical artifacts might strike some as unseemly, but the items addressed by the legislation are either personal or in all likelihood would have been disposed of and lost forever — hardware from soon-to-be-jettisoned lunar modules, for example — had they not been salvaged by those who used them. Moon rocks and other lunar materials are specifically excluded from the legislation.

These are astronauts who put their lives on the line, expanding humankind’s frontiers aboard machines that were primitive by today’s standards; that more didn’t lose their lives in these endeavors is truly remarkable. They are more than entitled to a few artifacts from their taxpayer-funded exploits, even if all they want to do with them now is make a few bucks to shore up their estates or help put their grandkids through school.

Reps. Hall and Johnson are to be commended for introducing the legislation, and the full House and Senate deserve credit for seeing it through to the president’s desk. It goes to show that it is possible for Congress to do the right thing, even in the poisonous political atmosphere that pervades Washington these days.