What has a tiny sliver of sticky tape being sold in a St. Louis, Mo., auction house got to do with NASA? And why the heck did the government agency swoop in to claim said sticky tape?

Sounding like a storyline crossed between X-Files and a Monty Python sketch, this is an entertaining tidbit of space history that began over 40 years ago.

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According to The New York Times, the United States attorney’s office for eastern Missouri announced Thursday that it had recovered “stolen” government property.

Either the government takes sticky tape pilfering very seriously, or the triangular piece of sticky tape, measuring only 1/8th of an inch wide, was very special. Fortunately for all of us who have “borrowed” rolls of tape from the office, it’s the latter. The tape has specks of moon dust stuck to it, dating back to the Apollo moon landings.

But how did the dust get stuck to some sticky tape only for it to appear 40 years later in Missouri?

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The story begins with Terry Slezak, the photographer in charge of developing photographs taken by the astronauts who trekked across the lunar surface between 1969 and 1972.

On one occasion, Slezak opened a canister containing photographic film, only to spill moon dust that had collected inside. After all, judging by the photographs (below) and stories from Apollo astronauts, moon dust gets everywhere. The dust spilled over Slezak’s hands and film magazine, so to avoid the abrasive dust from damaging the bare film, he used Scotch tape and towels to remove it. The tape, plus moon dust, was left hanging in his dark room.

Dusted: Commander Eugene Cernan inside the Apollo 17 Lunar Module, covered in dust after a moonwalk (NASA)

Later, as Slezak explains, he was presented with a poster with photographs signed by the Apollo 11 astronauts. Naturally, he did what most of us would probably do given the situation. “I added the little piece of Scotch tape with the moon dust on it,” he said. “I thought that would be kind of neat.”

Not thinking he’d done anything wrong, Slezak sold the poster, plus tape, plus moon dust, in 2001. The buyer was a German collector who, seeing a profitable opportunity, removed the tape and cut it up to be sold in sections.

One section of tape ended up in the possession of an unnamed woman who put it up for auction in the Missouri auction house where it grabbed NASA’s attention.

David M. Kols, president of the Regency-Superior auction house, knew that selling moon rocks was illegal, but wasn’t aware that the law extended to moon dust, too. The tape was quickly removed from the auction by investigators and the last owner of the tape informed that it was, in fact, not hers to own. She graciously relinquished ownership so the dust could be returned to the American people.

In tracking down and acquiring the tape, Kols added, “I’ve never seen the government move so fast.”

This little fiasco makes me wonder how many other items of overlooked government property are floating around that might have bits of space history stuck to them…

Top image: Dusty sticky tape, not the same tape NASA owns. Honest. Credit: iStockPhoto