Edgar Mitchell using a camera — that may, or may not be the same disputed camera — on the lunar surface during the Apollo 14 mission (NASA).

Last week, NASA reclaimed a tiny strip of Scotch tape from a Missouri auction house. Why? It had invaluable grains of moon dust stuck to it.

Today, it’s being reported that NASA has saved another, slightly bigger Apollo artifact from being auctioned off: one of the cameras from the 1971 Apollo 14 mission.

But how did such a bulky piece of hardware go missing in the first place? Well, it seems ex-astronaut Edgar Mitchell had something to do with that.

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The U.S. Government isn’t taking the matter lightly either. In a lawsuit filed in Miami federal court on Wednesday, Mitchell is accused of illegally possessing the camera and attempting to sell it for profit, Reuters reports.

The camera, one of two video cameras carried on board the Apollo 14 lunar module Antares, had a pre-sale estimate of $60,000 to $80,000. The British auction house Bonhams planned to auction the camera as part of a Space History Sale in May, but pulled the “Movie Camera from the Lunar Surface” when the dispute with NASA became known.

The suit points out that “all equipment and property used during NASA operations remains the property of NASA unless explicitly released or transferred to another party,” and that NASA had no knowledge of Mitchell being given the camera.

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Michell’s lawyer, Donald Jacobson, disputes this. “Objects from the lunar trips to the moon were ultimately mounted and then presented to the astronauts as a gift after they had helped NASA on a mission,” Jacobson said.

According to Jacobson, NASA had approved of Mitchell’s ownership 40 years ago.

Mitchell was the Apollo 14 lunar module pilot during the nine-day mission that was commanded by Alan Shepard. He was the sixth man to walk on the moon.

So, did the Apollo legend deliberately pilfer the camera after returning from the moon? Has NASA lost the paperwork that would confirm Jacobson’s story? Or were the rules of equipment acquisition a little hazy amidst all the excitement of manned lunar exploration in the early 1970′s?

We’ll have to wait and see…