NASA Sues Astronaut for Return of Lunar Module Camera
Typically civil suits are thought of as an avenue to sue for money. But awarding monetary judgments is only one of the many inherent powers of a civil court. Declaring the rightful ownership of property is another. In the summer of 2011 the United States (on behalf of NASA) sued astronaut Edgar Mitchell in an effort to retrieve a camera it claimed he had improperly obtained/retained possession of. According to the United States, Dr. Mitchell was the sixth person to walk on the moon. It learned that a British auction house was preparing for bidding on a “Movie Camera from the Lunar Surface” which allegedly came “directly from the collection of Apollo 14 Lunar Module Pilot Edgar Mitchell”. NASA claimed that the camera was the property of the United States and asked a federal judge in Florida to declare that the camera was the exclusive property of the United States.
The United States also sued under a theory of conversion, which is simply an allegation that one person has wrongfully exercised control over the property of another. Proof of conversion entitles the wronged party to return of the property as well as any monetary damages incurred as a result of the conversion. Lastly, the government asked the court to enjoin Dr. Mitchell from entering into any agreement to transfer the camera. Interestingly, it did not sue the auction house, which might have been the quickest way to torpedo the auction. In conclusion, the United States made a broad request to the court to order Dr. Mitchell to return the camera.
Dr. Mitchell immediately filed a Motion to Dismiss the case. Such a motion alleges that the Complaint fails to state a claim upon which the court can grant relief. He argued (1) that the United States had failed to attach any evidence of its alleged request to return the camera (2) failed to verify (i.e. swear to) the complaint and (3) failed to properly allege that it was the rightful owner of the camera. He noted that if he had, in fact, converted the camera, the event occurred in 1971 and that several of the government’s claims, therefore, were barred by the applicable statute of limitations.
Mitchell’s motion also suggests what happened to the camera, stating:
“NASA abandoned the camera by attaching it to the lunar module in question which was destroyed on the moon in the year 1971. The Complaint further fails to state the Dr. Mitchell was able to retrieve the camera from the lunar module and returned to Earth with the camera, after which it was presented back to him by NASA, after he was quarantined”.
Dr. Mitchell then filed a Motion for Summary Judgment. In it he referred to a 2002 letter from NASA’s Director of Flight Operations, which stated that it was the:
“general policy for the flight crews (astronauts) that made the Apollo flights to be allowed to keep as mementos various pieces of personal equipment that they used or carried on those flights. Also, because the Lunar Module was not returned, it was generally accepted that the astronauts could bring back pieces of equipment or hardware from this spacecraft for a keepsake of these journeys. NASA deliberately made this policy to establish that these types of items could be kept by the flight crews and dispensed as they saw fit”.
The government responded. It argued that it had not waited too long to sue because the law of Texas, rather than Florida controlled and that the Texas law of conversion allows a party two years to sue from the date that party actually discovers its property had been converted. It also referred to another document provided by the former Director of the Manned Spacecraft Center, which stated that the personal items an astronaut could retain during space flight as mementos consisted of “patches, medallions, emblems, watches, and rings” and that such items could only be retained if management gave approval prior to launch.
The federal judge struck the Motion for Summary Judgment because it was filed too soon, and prior to any meaningful discovery having been conducted. The Court also denied the Motion to Dismiss, holding that Dr. Mitchell failed “to demonstrate that (the United States) had not stated a claim upon which relief can be granted”. So the stage was set for the parties to begin the expensive discovery process.
This was avoided when, shortly thereafter, the United States filed a dismissal of the case, in which it stated that it had “recovered” its forty year old camera. The Court granted the motion and concluded the case. It would be interesting to know the extent to which, prior to filing the suit, the United States simply asked Dr. Mitchell to return the camera.