The desk set - a few pieces of plastic amateurishly glued together - is battered and scratched. The pen was snapped off years ago. On the left side is a yellowing blob of epoxy in the shape of a rock. On the right is a small plaque: "Presented to JOE HEALY From his friends at LRL."
Cost: at least $50,000, the minimum bid in an Internet auction now under way.
This nondescript piece - a retirement gift to Healy, an engineer at NASA's Lunar Receiving Laboratory who worked on the Apollo missions and who died a decade ago - is believed to contain some of the rarest material to be found on earth: fragments of the moon. The fragments are small - specks really, embedded within the epoxy blob, smaller than the air bubbles and harder to spot - but they nonetheless appear to be the largest sample of Apollo moon rock ever to be offered for sale, at least legally.
"It's got magic attached to it, don't you think?" said Healy's daughter, Margaret Davis of The Dalles, Oregon, who is putting the heirloom up for sale. "It's really from the moon."
NASA will not vouch for it, however. The space agency examined it under a microscope in 1999. In a statement released when the desk set was returned to Davis, NASA said, "The particles submitted for testing did not exhibit any characteristic features commonly associated with lunar soil" and added that more extensive testing could not be conducted without destroying it.
As of Wednesday evening, no one had yet bid on the item. The auction continues
until 10 p.m. next Thursday, although last-minute bidding could extend it for hours.
"The serious bidders usually don't show their hand until the last day," said Bruce Mauro, acquisitions manager for Leland's, an Internet auction house based in Seaford, New York, which is handling the auction. "They all lay back in the weeds." (The auction can be viewed at www.lelands.com by clicking the "Americana" link and then going to "Space.")
In the three decades since the Apollo landings, NASA has jealously guarded most of the 843 pounds, or 382 kilograms, of moon rock collected by the astronauts. The space agency considers them national treasures, property of the federal government, although a few pieces were given as gifts to foreign governments. Collectors have had to content themselves with moon rocks brought back to earth by unmanned Soviet probes, or with pieces of clothing and equipment stained with moon dust. A one-carat Russian moon pebble sold for more than $400,000 at Sotheby's in 1993.
When Healy retired in 1970, his colleagues pulled tiny fragments from a box of Apollo 11 rocks and mixed them into a blob of epoxy shaped like the first moon rock to be put on public display. The desk set also includes two pieces of mylar from the Apollo 11 and 12 lunar landers.
Soon thereafter, NASA administrators sent out memos telling employees not to give away any lunar samples, but no one asked Healy to return his desk set. He often took it to schools to show it to children.
"He kept it in a shoe box," said his daughter, Davis, "and when he didn't have it out showing it to someone, he had it under his bed."
Over the years, the epoxy, once clear, has turned amber, and Healy's wife, Cynthia, snapped the pen off one day when she needed something to write with.
With the Healys' deaths, the desk set passed on to Davis, who kept it in a safe deposit box. She planned to donate it to a local museum but wanted to know its value, for tax deduction purposes. In 1999 she sent it to John Reznikoff, a dealer in Connecticut, who told her it could be worth $1 million. Reznikoff says that when he called NASA with questions about the desk set, the agency seized it. NASA replies that it was voluntarily turned over for examination. In any event, after an inconclusive look, NASA returned it a couple of months later. Gavin Lentz, a lawyer from Philadelphia representing Davis, said he wrote NASA a year and a half ago telling it of Davis's plans to sell the desk set. He said NASA had not replied with any objections.
With the economy reviving, Reznikoff and Davis decided that now was a good time to put the desk set up for auction.
Davis, a social worker, said the sale would help pay debts from her children's education. "I can't afford to sit on that sort of asset," she said.