Did NASA officials go too far by setting up a sting operation for a 74-year-old widow trying to sell a tiny speck of lunar material?
An elaborate sting operation to stop the alleged illegal sale of a moon rock recently led armed NASA agents to a Denny's restaurant in Riverside County, California. Their target was a "terrified" 74-year-old widow, Joanne Davis, who claims the speck-sized rock was a gift to her late husband from astronaut Neil Armstrong. Here's what you should know:
Where did the moon rock come from?
Davis' husband worked as a NASA contractor during the Apollo moon missions of the 1960s. She claims that Armstrong gave the moon rock to her husband. Armstrong has previously said that he never gave or sold lunar material to anyone. Today, the artifact in question is a "speck of authenticated moon rock encased in an acrylic-looking dome that appears to be a paperweight," says Britain's Daily Mail.
And it's illegal to sell moon rocks?
Yep. Though NASA has given "hundreds of rocks" to "nations, states, and high-profile individuals," they still remain government property. Thus, "NASA's inspector general works to arrest anyone trying to sell them," says Steve Marble of the Los Angeles Times. A NASA agent claims Davis knew the arranged transaction was "questionable" because she used the term "black market" when trying to sell the rock.
How did NASA find her?
Davis tipped them off herself. On May 10, she wrote officials trying to find a buyer for the tiny rock and a coin-sized piece of the heat shield used to protect Apollo 11. "I've been searching the internet for months attempting to find a buyer," she wrote. "If you have any thoughts as to how I can proceed with the sale of these two items, please call." In ensuing conversations with a NASA agent, Davis allegedly agreed to sell the rock to NASA for $1.7 million, which she wanted to leave to her three children.
How did the bust go down?
Davis went to the Denny's ready to sell the rock. But when she pulled the item out in her restaurant booth, armed sheriff's deputies and NASA officials rushed into the diner. "When officers in flack vests took a hold of her, the 4-foot-11 woman said she was so scared she lost control of her bladder," and was questioned in the parking lot for two hours before being let go without the moon rock, says the Daily Mail. NASA has yet to decide if it will press charges.
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- Opinion Brief: Neil Armstrong vs. Obama
- In-depth briefing: NASA's uncertain course