Episode 6 of the Space Oddities Podcast is titled, “The Sue Me, Sue You Blues (With Apologies To George Harrison." The episode takes a look at several of the lawsuits filed against NASA and its astronauts. Most were trivial, some very serious including one in which the space agency actually sued one of their Apollo crew members.
The title of the episode comes from a song written by former Beatle George Harrison during the band’s breakup and subsequent litany of lawsuits that followed.
Space Oddities Podcast
Title: The Sue Me Sue You Blues
Air Date: 07/05/2022
[Theme Music Up & Under]
Welcome to “Space Oddities: Forgotten Stories from Mankind’s Exploration of Space”. I’m Joe Cuhaj.
Episode 6: The Sue Me-Sue You Blues
[Music transitions into episode]
[Apollo 8 / Genesis]
It was moving moment in human history. Three men – Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders – had made a voyage that only science fiction writers could have imagined: They had flown a quarter of a million miles from Earth and were orbiting the moon.
The first sight of the Earth rising over the desolate lunar surface in the absolute blackness of space spurred deep emotions with the crew and the people on that lonely blue dot, so much so that on Christmas Eve 1968, it seemed fitting to send a special holiday greeting to those back home…
[Apollo 8 / Genesis Conclusion]
A beautiful sentiment, right? While most of the world thought so, some were outraged including one Madalyn Murray O’Hara, a devout atheist who immediately filed a lawsuit against NASA and its director, Thomas Paine, that the reading of Genesis by the crew of Apollo 8 violated the Constitution’s First Amendment and the separation of church and state.
The lawsuit went nowhere, causing mostly heartburn for the space agency but made them more sensitive to a public that held wide ranging views and beliefs.
That was one of the first times NASA and its astronauts were sued in court, but it wouldn’t be the last. Every now and then, an individual or organization would find something that NASA was doing that they didn’t like and would sue the agency. Heck, even NASA would file lawsuits, even against its own astronaut.
[Apollo 14 / Launch]
Throughout the history of the US space program, astronauts were allowed to bring with them a limited number of personal items in what is called a PPK or Personal Preference Kit. The PPK is limited in size and how much weight each astronaut was allowed to bring. You can’t weigh down a rocket during launch or splashdown.
Astronauts brought a wide and eclectic array of items with them into space that they would bring home to put on their mantle as a memento of their flight or to give to friends and family.
But what about bringing home a souvenir of their mission, say a control stick from the lunar module? A piece of the life support backpack? Or how about a camera from the lunar module?
During the Apollo moon missions, the final five minutes of a lunar landing was recorded on film by a camera that was mounted in the right side window. Once the astronauts had completed their extravehicular activities of collecting rock samples and setting up experiments on the lunar surface, they would rocket back off the moon in the lunar module’s ascent stage where they would rejoin their crewmate who was waiting for them in orbit in the command module and head back home. The lunar module with that camera and other unnecessary gear would then be jettisoned and sent crashing into the moon.
[Apollo 14 / Shepard’s Golf Swing]
On the flight of Apollo 14 in which America’s first man in space, Alan Shepard, took the now famous golf swing on the moon, his crewmate, Edgar Mitchell, decided he wanted to bring a piece of the mission home with him – that camera from the lunar module’s window.
All was well and Mitchell had an extraordinary souvenir from the mission, but remember, astronauts aren’t paid very well, and in 2011, the astronaut put the camera up for auction where it was expected to fetch $80,000. That’s when NASA took notice.
In papers filed by the agency, Mitchell and the auction house to prove ownership, stating that the camera was government property. But if the item in question – the camera – was destined to be destroyed anyway and the astronaut saved it, at that point was it really government property?
Instead of facing a prolonged and expensive legal battle, Mitchell agreed to surrender the camera and relinquish all rights to ownership. The camera was eventually turned over to the Smithsonian.
[Apollo 11 Landing]
Lunar artifacts continue to cause legal heartburn for NASA including a lunar sample return bag from our first lunar landing, Apollo 11.
The story begins when NASA loaned a sample bag that contained lunar rocks from the mission to a museum in Kansas. Somewhere along the line, the bag was miscategorized and not identified as being a real lunar artifact. So, the museum put the bag up for auction where it was purchased by Nancy Lee Carlson for $995 in 2015.
The auction house indicated that the bag had flown on an Apollo mission so Carlson asked the Johnson Space Center to verify it. By studying traces of dust on the bag, it was determined that it was carried aboard the Apollo 11 mission.
At that point, NASA refused to return the bag to Carlson due to that fact that there was no documentation stating that the agency had legally transferred the bag to the museum or Carlson.
Eventually, a federal judge declared that NASA had no leg to stand on since there was no documentation and Carlson could retain the bag.
Following the decision, Carlson sold the bag at an auction held by Sotheby’s where the auction house estimated it would sell for $2 million to $4 million. It eventually sold for $1.8 million.
After the auction, Carlson proceeded to sue NASA claiming that the tests that determined the bag’s authenticity damaged it depriving her the full value of the artifact and causing her personal distress.
That last lawsuit has spurred additional litigation by Carlson, all of which is still tumbling through the courts.
The legal battle over space sometimes takes weird turns and are just laughable. Take the case where NASA was accused of invading Mars.
[Mars Attacks clip]
In July 1997, three men from Yemen presented papers to the country’s prosecutor general that reportedly proved that their ancestors bequeathed the red planet to them over 3,000 years ago. The men claimed that when NASA’s Pathfinder and Sojourner rovers landed on Mars, the agency was trespassing and that the robotic explorers had landed without permission.
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In response, a NASA spokeswoman simply laughed, explaining that it is a planet in the solar system that belongs to everyone.
Needless to say, nothing came of the suit and it only leaves us shaking our heads.
I’m Joe Cuhaj and thank you for joining me for this episode of Space Oddities. You can read more fascinating, offbeat, and obscure space tales like these in my new book, aptly titled Space Oddities: Forgotten Stories of Mankind’s Exploration of Space, available at your favorite online or hometown bookstore.
If you liked this episode then tell a friend and be sure to like us on Facebook - visit facebook.com/SpaceOddityBook or drop me a line from my website, joe-cuhaj.com (that’s spelled CUHAJ). You can also learn more about my other books and upcoming appearances.
Our theme music is called “Inspired” courtesy of BenSounds.Com. We’ll see you next time with more space tales.
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