NASA is being sued by a woman who wants to keep her moon dust. The dispute could involve four or forty million dollars. No one is sure how much.
It all depends on moon dust markets.
Selling Moon Dust
We have to start with a moon rock heist. In 2003, three NASA interns stole a small pile of moon rock fragments. Actually they had run off with a 600 pound safe that housed assorted meteorite chips, rocks, and dust from space. FBI agents posing as rock collectors nabbed them when they tried to sell some of their loot.
The story relates to us because defense attorneys had to value the theft.
And that is where the problems began. Because there were no markets they had no prices. Instead, the court based its estimate of $50,800 a gram (equal to $300,000 today) on the cost of collecting the specimens during the Apollo missions to the moon.
We have the same problem with the 10 to 15 cubic centimeters of moon dust that the woman suing NASA says astronaut Neil Armstrong gave her. No one knows how much the dust is worth. Determined by the judiciary, its value could be the same as the rocks in the 2003 robbery. However, the price might soar in an auction or sink if her specimen were not authenticated.
For now though, since she cannot sell her dust, let’s just say it is priceless.
Our Bottom Line: Markets
An economist could tell us that this woman needs a market. When a price is determined by a court or a committee, it does not reflect the “wisdom of a crowd.” However, as a process that reflects the interaction of supply and demand from many participants, the market usually conveys an item’s true value.
Only through a market can the woman with the moon dust let NASA know what she is sacrificing.
My sources and more: While it’s not quite as quirky as it once was, Wonkblog occasionally has something good like this moon dust article. That started me on a path that related to the moon and markets. It took me to a NY Times story about the moon dust on a piece of tape and to the Orlando Sentinel for the moon rock heist. It also did lead me to several auctions, here.
Please note that our featured image is from collectspace/Robert Pearlman.