- Associated Press - Monday, October 24, 2011

LOS ANGELES (AP) - The elaborate mission to recover a moon rock led NASA agents to one of the most down-to-earth places: a Denny’s restaurant in Riverside County.

But at the end of the sting operation, agents were left holding a speck of lunar dust smaller than a grain of rice and a 74-year-old suspect who was terrified by armed officials.

Five months after NASA investigators and local agents swooped into the restaurant and hailed their operation as a cautionary tale for anyone trying to sell national treasure, no charges have been filed, NASA isn’t talking and the case appears stalled.

The target, Joann Davis, a grandmother who says she was trying to raise money for her sick son, asserts the lunar material was rightfully hers, having been given to her space-engineer husband by Neil Armstrong in the 1970s.

“It’s a very upsetting thing,” Davis told The Associated Press. “It’s very detrimental, very humiliating, all of it a lie.”

The strange case centers on a speck of authenticated moon rock encased in an acrylic-looking dome that appears to be a paperweight. For years, NASA has gone after anyone selling lunar material gathered on the Apollo missions because it is considered government property, so cannot be sold for profit.

Still, NASA has given hundreds of lunar samples to nations, states and high-profile individuals but only on the understanding they remain government property. NASA’s inspector general works to arrest anyone trying to sell them.

The case was triggered by Davis herself, according to a search warrant affidavit written by Norman Conley, an agent for the inspector general.

She emailed a NASA contractor May 10 trying to find a buyer for the rock, as well as a nickel-sized piece of the heat shield that protected the Apollo 11 space capsule as it returned to earth from the first successful manned mission to the moon in 1969.

“I’ve been searching the internet for months attempting to find a buyer,” Davis wrote. “If you have any thoughts as to how I can proceed with the sale of these two items, please call.”

Davis told AP the items were among many of the space-related heirlooms her husband left her when he died in 1986. She said she had worked as a lexicographer and he had worked as an engineer for North American Rockwell, which contracted for NASA during the Apollo era.

Davis claims Armstrong gave the items to her husband, though the affidavit says the first man on the moon has previously told investigators he never gave or sold lunar material to anyone.

In follow-up phone conversations with a NASA agent, Davis acknowledged the rock was not sellable on the open market and fretted about an agent knocking on her door and taking the material, which she was willing to sell for “big money underground.”

“She must know that this is a questionable transaction because she used the term `black market,’” Agent Conley states in the search warrant.

Curiously, though, Davis agreed to sell the sample to NASA for a stellar $1.7 million. She said she wanted to leave her three children an inheritance and take care of her sick son.

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