One of These Days, To the Moon!

FullMoonBrightJuly 20, 1969: A Man walked on the Moon.

Let’s say that again: A man walked on the Moon.

President Kennedy challenged the country to be bold. We answered the challenge, doing what had only been the stuff of dreams since Mankind first looked up at the night sky.

In honor of this significant historic event, let’s celebrate with reviewing the legal issues of sending human beings to the Moon and “Lunar Litigation.”

If I were a NASA Lawyer in the 1960s…

Presidents Kennedy, Johnson & Nixon needed lawyers for many reasons. What would a 1960’s Era NASA lawyer be concerned about?

Government Contracts: Saturn V rockets, Apollo capsules, and Lunar Landers did not build themselves. The entire contract process probably rivaled the complexity of the technical requirements to get to the Moon.

Engineers have the right stuff to design space ships, but the process to order the construction of the ships required help from attorneys.

Assumption of Risk for the Astronauts: Make sure the Astronauts understand the risk they are engaged in doing. That means an employment contract that clearly stated the risks of space flight and going to the Moon. That could include anything from exploding on the launch pad, to being trapped on the Moon, to contracting a “space virus” that could destroy the human race if returned to Earth.

Provided the Original Seven and New Nine all had military or test pilot experience, they understood the that there were risks in flight.

Insurance for the Astronauts: Develop life insurance policies for those traveling from the Earth to the Moon on a rocket that makes slightly less noise than a nuclear bomb going off.

No Keepsakes from NASA: Make sure employees and astronauts understand that hardware developed for the mission belongs to the government.

Former Astronaut Edger Mitchell tried to sell a camera used on his Apollo 14 mission. NASA sued to get it back. United States v. Mitchell, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 125844 (S.D. Fla. Oct. 3, 2011).

Columbia_Apollo11Eminent Domain & Project Apollo

Trailblazing to the moon has made it necessary for the United States, exercising its power of eminent domain, to acquire large tracts of land here on earth. One such acquisition included 654.43 acres owned by appellant Colton, who received as just compensation for the taking an award fixed by a jury in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida. The principal issue on this appeal is whether the district court erred, as the appellant contends, in disallowing evidence of enhancement in the land’s value caused by  the original establishment of a space facility to which the appellant’s land was later added. We hold that this evidentiary exclusion by the district court was improper and that the judgment must be reversed.

The record before us provides an interesting account of early developments in our nation’s manned lunar landing program, accelerated in May 1961 when President Kennedy called upon Congress and the country to send an American to the moon and back before the end of the decade. The President’s challenge was accepted and, as this opinion goes to the printer, two American astronauts prepare to depart from the moon after successfully landing there and exploring the lunar surface. An initial step in the implementation of this national goal was the selection of a launch site. Officials of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, after considering various locations, selected Cape Canaveral, Florida, now Cape Kennedy. On August 24, 1961, the Justice Department, acting upon a request by NASA Administrator James Webb, filed in the district court a complaint in condemnation describing a 72,644-acre tract of land needed for the project.

United States v. 2353.28 Acres of Land, 414 F.2d 965, 966-967 (5th Cir. Fla. 1969).

Apollo_17Long Before eDiscovery Cases

The instant case demonstrates once again the paradoxes within the spectrum of the practical application of the computer sciences. At its best, the computer has enabled NASA to send men on lunar missions zooming 238,857 miles into outer space so that they may land softly on the moon and return safely with pinpoint landings despite reentry speeds of 25,000 miles per hour. For computer science application at its worst, Pennsylvania’s Department of Public Welfare (DPW) could not master the less dramatic task of assuring a proper disbursement of checks to 3,502 deserving recipients in the counties of Allegheny, Dauphin, Delaware and Philadelphia.

Brower v. Wohlgemuth, 371 F. Supp. 863, 864 (E.D. Pa. 1974) [Emphasis Added].

What About Those Moon Rocks?

There have been many cases involving Moon rocks. Here is one that even included dinosaurs:

According to the presentence investigation report (“PSI”), Roberts had participated in a criminal scheme, whereby he and several co-conspirators stole lunar samples and Martian meteorites from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (“NASA’s”) Johnson Space Center in Houston and transported these items in interstate commerce for the purpose of selling them and using the sale proceeds for their own enrichment. During the course of the conspiracy, Roberts and some of his co-conspirators stole a 600-pound safe containing “lunar samples from every Apollo mission that landed on the moon, documentation authenticating the lunar samples, Martian meteorites, and other items from NASA/JSC.” After transporting the lunar samples and meteorites to Florida to sell them to purported buyers, Roberts was arrested by undercover FBI agents who had been posing as the buyers. Additionally, in an unrelated case, Roberts, while working as an intern for the paleontologist department of the Utah Museum of Natural History, had possessed in his residence several items of stolen U.S. property, including dinosaur remains and other vertebrate specimens that belonged to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the National Forest Service, and the National Park Service.

United States v. Roberts, 155 Fed. Appx. 501, 503 (11th Cir. Fla. 2005).

There and Back Again

I look forward for us to return to the Moon and ultimately Mars. I was technically alive for the final Apollo mission with the Soviet Union. I really wish that mission instead had been used to service Skylab, so our first space station would have still been in orbit by the time Space Shuttle Columbia was launched in 1981.

One of my earliest memories was the roll-out for the Space Shuttle Columbia. My father was in charge of installing the tiles.

I saw the last two Space Shuttle launches. I was glad I could take my father back for the grand finale of the shuttle program.

It is time to leave near Earth orbit and go beyond where we left off in 1972. The Space Program is a very American adventure. It inspires us to learn science, math and more importantly, dream. It creates jobs and improves technology. Without the Space Program of the 1960s, we would not have had the Computer Revolution of the 1970s.

Fundamentally, the Space Program brings us together as a country. It is time to take another step towards the future.


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Josh Gilliland
Josh Gilliland is a California attorney who focuses his practice on eDiscovery. Josh is the co-creator of The Legal Geeks, which has made the ABA Journal Top Blawg 100 Blawg for 2013 to 2016, the ABA Web 100 for Best Legal Blog and Podcast categories, and was nominated for Best Podcast for the 2015 Geekie Awards. Josh has presented at legal conferences and comic book conventions across the United States. He also ties a mean bow tie.