How cockroaches that digested Apollo 11 moon dust ended up in auction

The bugs were used like canaries in a coal mine.
Loukia Papadopoulos

RR Auction, a New Hampshire-based firm that specializes in space memorabilia, has just put up for auction a rather strange but definitely interesting object, according to a post by the firm on its site. The potential gift idea? Cockroach-eaten moon dust from Apollo 11 that includes three of the original cockroaches in near impeccable condition.

An extraordinary specimen display

"Extraordinary specimen display from an Apollo 11 lunar dust experiment, in which German cockroaches (among other lower creatures) were fed lunar soil material in order to observe potential pathological effects. The display housed a vial of ground fines of material extracted from the cockroaches following the biological tests, three of the preserved Blattella germanica cockroaches, and a glass slide containing a histological preparation of Blattella germanica fed the lunar sample, among several images and souvenirs associated with man's first moon landing," reads RR Auction's online post.

The post opened for bids on Thursday and will run through to June 23. How did moon dust end up in the stomachs of cockroaches? Let's take a stroll down history lane courtesy of Collect Space.

It all started back with the first mission to get a human presence on the moon, when NASA scientists could not predict exactly what the astronauts, mainly Apollo 11 crewmates Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, would encounter once there and what they could potentially bring back to Earth.

Although most space biologists were absolutely certain that the moon was devoid of alien life, they could not be certain that it was not populated by germs that could, if returned to Earth, threaten all life.

Quarantined for 21 days 

To avoid such dire consequences, the crew, their spacecraft, and everything that came back with them were quarantined for 21 days after their return back to our planet. NASA even built a special facility to isolate the moon men and material from the outside world called the Lunar Receiving Laboratory.

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There, the astronauts were exposed to a slew of medical exams while several animals (including cockroaches) were put into contact with moon rocks and dust to see how they would respond. It is estimated that roughly 10 percent of the 47.5 pounds (22 kg) of the moon rocks brought back by the Apollo 11 mission were used for this purpose.

After the quarantine period was up, NASA would also contract Marion Brooks, an entomologist from the University of St. Paul, to further study the cockroaches that had ingested the moon dust. It should be noted that NASA's quarantine experiments had proved that the astronauts and animals were not affected by their exposure to the moon, but the space agency wanted to ensure there were no other missed side effects. 

Brooks would also find that there were no ill effects from exposure to moon dust and would proceed to take all the samples she had from NASA and arrange them in a specimen mount that she placed in her house.

Three years after her death in 2007, the sample display would be sold at auction for $10,000 by the former Regency-Superior Galleries of Beverly Hills, California. Last March, Apollo11 moon dust also went up for auction, indicating there is much interest in the material.