Houston has a problem . . with my moon dust

THERE aren't many people who can claim to be turning American giant Nasa green with envy, but retired Edinburgh astronomer Ian Sheffield is one of them.

The former Royal Observatory engineer is one of a handful of people across the globe who own a piece of the moon.

Although his samples consist of just a few millimetres of moon dust, the cosmic crumbs have been at the centre of an ownership wrangle, with the US space agency claiming they are American property and should be returned.

Mr Sheffield explained: "They regard it as an American national resource. Moon dust is very rare, there's only a few dozen samples in private hands in the world. And with Nasa having spent the odd few billion pounds on the space race, they're a little bit sensitive about people getting hold of bits and pieces."

The keen astronomer, who teaches children part-time at the Royal Observatory, contacted Nasa when he bought the samples to ask whether he could exhibit them. To his surprise, Nasa refused permission and claimed the dust as its own property.

Mr Sheffield, however, insists the samples were bought legally and has refused to hand them back – even though Nasa has threatened to confiscate them.

He said: "They told me they regard all samples of moon dust as their property – whether they were official samples, or dust collected accidentally.

"What they've basically said is they reserve the right to confiscate them at any time. That's their official line. I did send two e-mails to the legal department asking to clarify the point, but they have been ignored."

Mr Sheffield, 62, who lives in Haddington with his wife Marjorie, has two samples of moon dust – one from the famous 1969 Apollo 11 mission and another from the 1971 Apollo 15 landing.

The first was taken from a camera cartridge accidentally dropped by Neil Armstrong. When the cartridge was examined back on earth by Nasa photo technician Tommy Slezak, the dust was discovered and he was placed in quarantine with the other astronauts. Upon his release, he was given the dust as a memento. Twenty years later it was sold on for 14,000 to a dealer who split the sample into 50 smaller units.

The second sample was also discovered accidentally, this time on a cloth tool bag which had been left on the surface of the moon.

Mr Sheffield bought the samples, which are attached to card with transparent sticky tape, from a dealer three years ago. Despite measuring just a few millimetres, each is valued at around 2,000. He said: "Anybody who's interested in astronomy or space science would want a piece of the moon. It's very rare."

Talking about Nasa's threat to confiscate his samples, Mr Sheffield said: "I don't know if they would ever pursue it in practice, but the threat is still hanging there, which makes it very difficult to exhibit them. It's a shame, because I'm quite happy to put them on display."

Despite repeated attempts, the Evening News was unable to contact Nasa for comment.


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