It’s “kind of an odd duck,” Kansas City, Missouri-based attorney Christopher McHugh said Tuesday about the case he filed last week in U.S. District Court in Kansas.
His firm, Seigfreid Bingham, represents a plaintiff who lives in Tennessee. The property at the heart of the case came from the moon. The defendant is NASA. And the case - which even has related links to Hutchinson - could wind up before a jury in Wichita.
Partly, McHugh said, he requested Wichita as the trial venue because he was born and reared there and practiced law there for seven years. Another reason, he said, is the familiarity at that court with space-related trials.
Max Ary, the former top executive at the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, went on trial at U.S. District Court in Wichita after the discovery that he was illegally selling space artifacts. He subsequently served time in prison.
The U.S. government sold some memorabilia that had been found in Ary's garage, and Nancy Carlson, Illinois, bought a lunar sample bag from Armstrong’s historic Apollo 11 mission at a government auction for under $1,000. Embedded in the material at the bottom of the bag was lunar rock and dust, said McHugh, who represented Carlson in a case in U.S. District Court in Wichita.
NASA has taken the position that it owns all lunar material and such material in the possession of individuals is stolen property, McHugh said. In Carlson’s case, the judge ruled the U.S. government had given up all rights to the bag when it mistakenly sold it.
“They are aligned, but not perfectly aligned,” McHugh said of the two cases. He said Cicco’s husband called McHugh because of the outcome of the Carlson case.
Armstrong and Murray
In this new case, the plaintiff claims the moon dust was a gift from Armstrong.
According to Laura Murray Cicco v. the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, before Armstrong became an astronaut and the first man to walk on the moon in 1969, he was a naval aviator in the Korean War. Cicco’s father, Tom Murray, was pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II and trained pilots for the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress.
After leaving the space program, Ohio-reared Armstrong taught in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Cincinnati. The Murray family had moved to Cincinnati around 1969 or 1970. At the time, they had a daughter, Laura, who was born in 1962.
“Armstrong was friends with Tom Murray,” the court filing said.
It further claims:
“When Laura was about ten years old, her mother gave her a glass vial with a rubber stopper full of light grey dust and one of her father’s business cards. … On the back of the business card was a note from Armstrong that said, ‘To Laura Ann Murray - Best of Luck - Neil Armstrong Apollo 11’”
Armstrong’s signature has been authenticated by an expert, McHugh said.
X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy and X-ray diffraction spectroscopy showed the glass vial contains lunar material, according to Tom Tague, with the Bruker Corporation, Massachusetts.
The vial also holds some “terrestrial material." The court filing suggests the mixture of lunar and earth material could have occurred by vacuuming the lunar dust off a space suit.
“It’s pretty important that this gets cleared up,” McHugh said. “This is kind of an outstanding question that needs to get answered,” he said.
Because NASA contends all lunar material is the property of NASA, Cicco lives under the threat of arrest, he said. There are a number of people in the country who have lunar material, McHugh said, and this hinders people who want to pass along the memorabilia to someone or sell it.
“I’m encouraged by that ruling, for sure,” McHugh said of the Carlson ruling.
In the Cicco court filing, McHugh asserts that there is no law against private persons owning lunar material. ”The lunar material is not contraband. It is not illegal to own or possess,”’ he wrote.
“Astronaut Neil Armstrong gifted the vial of lunar dust at issue to Laura Ann Murray, now Laura Murray Cicco, when she was a child, and she is the rightful and legal owner of the vial and its contents,” the court filing claims.
NASA was recently served the complaint and has 60 days to respond.