Ten tiny microfilm King James Bibles that have been to the surface of the moon are locked up in the Tulsa County Courthouse, part of an ongoing legal battle between a Tulsa author and the state of Texas.
How Carol Mersch came to be in possession of the Bibles worth potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars — and how the court systems in Texas and Oklahoma got their hands on them — is a complex tale of intrigue, religious fervor, a fiery death on a Cape Canaveral launch pad and a former NASA chaplain allegedly held incommunicado and against his will by the state of Texas.
It started back in the 1960s when the Apollo space program was gearing up to fly men to the moon, Mersch said in an interview last week at her upscale midtown house decorated with space flight memorabilia.
She said astronaut Ed White, a deeply spiritual man, planned to take a small Bible to the moon. But while preparing for the flight, he and two others died on Jan. 27, 1967, when the Apollo I rocket caught fire on the launchpad at Cape Canaveral.
The Rev. John Stout, a NASA chaplain and a close friend of White’s, took up the cause, determined to see that the Bibles made it to the moon in White’s honor, she said.
He formed the Apollo Prayer League to pursue that goal and to pray for the astronauts. Eventually, 40,000 people were part of the league.
Hundreds of the postage stamp-sized Bibles went into space with the Apollo 13 mission, but a disastrous explosion during the flight forced the crew to abort the mission, and the Bibles never made it to the moon.
Stout asked Apollo 14 lunar module pilot Edgar Mitchell for help.
On Feb. 5, 1971, Mitchell took 100 copies of the Bible to the surface of the moon during the Apollo 14 mission.
Mitchell brought them back and turned them over to Stout and the Apollo Prayer League.
Stout and the League gave some of the Bibles to museums and individuals.
The Apollo program ended, and Stout disappeared into obscurity, taking some of the Bibles with him.
‘Pretty significant part of history’
In the late 1970s, Mersch heard Mitchell speak at a conference and never forgot it.
“I was absolutely enthralled as he described the Apollo 13 mission,” she said.
“He was in Mission Control. He was quite involved in the return of Apollo 13.
“At the end of his speech, he said, ‘But when all is said and done, I’m convinced it was the power of thousands of praying minds around the world that brought that spacecraft back into Earth orbit.’
“I was just dumbfounded. What made a physicist with a doctoral degree from MIT make a statement like that?”
Decades later, she contacted him about a book she was writing, “The Apostles of Apollo,” the story of the Apollo program, and particularly, the effort to take a Bible to the moon.
“It seemed to me like a pretty significant part of history. It is the most widely read book in the world, and ... it had traveled to another world. That seemed to be something of not only religious but historic significance,” she said.
In the extensive interviews and meetings with Mitchell and other astronauts that followed, she became friends with several of them and became so captivated by the Apollo program that she bought one of the Bibles for $50,000.
Mersch knew Stout was an indispensable part of her book, and she was determined to find him, so she asked the dealer who sold her the Bible.
“I was told that Rev. Stout was senile and would not be able to remember any of the details,” she said.
Later the dealer told her Stout was dead.
But Mersch met another man who told her he had been emailing Stout and that he was of sound mind.
She hired a private detective to find him. The detective came up with a phone number for him in Texas.
She called the number numerous times without success but decided to give it one last try. The phone rang and rang, and just as she was about to hang up, Stout answered.
Not only was he not senile, she said, he was delightful. They talked for two hours and made arrangements to talk again.
Hitting the mother lode
After several conversations, she flew to Texas in March 2009 to meet him and his wife at their home in a small town near Houston.
She found the couple living in a tiny apartment crowded with memorabilia from the Apollo space program, including letters and photos of Stout with U.S. presidents and Apollo astronauts.
Also in his possession were some of the Bibles and the original registry of the 100 serialized moon Bibles, a record of who had received them.
As an author writing about the Apollo moon Bibles, Mersch felt like she had hit the mother lode, she said.
Over the next nearly two years, she visited Stout often, recorded up to 100 hours of interviews with him and exchanged 800 emails. She developed a close friendship with the couple.
During that period, she said, Stout insisted on giving her some of the Bibles.
Because the Stouts were facing some financial difficulties, Mersch decided to auction one of the Bibles they had given her to raise some money to help them.
Unknown to her at the time, she said, Stout’s adopted son became suspicious of her relationship with them and contacted Texas authorities.
The Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services (DADS) visited the Stouts and determined that they were incapacitated and in need of guardianship.
In late 2010, Stout and his wife were declared wards of the state, and according to court documents and newspaper reports, they were taken from their home and held incommunicado, unable to use mail, phone or the internet, and unable to talk to anyone but their son, who had no contact with them.
Hours before the auction was to be held, the DADS showed up with a court order and seized the Bible.
Despite her efforts, Mersch was never allowed to see the Stouts again.
In the years that followed, Mersh and the state of Texas have been engaged in a complicated series of legal maneuvers over not just the nearly auctioned Bible but also 10 other moon Bibles and all of the NASA-related possessions held by Stout and his Apollo Prayer League. The controversy spilled into the Oklahoma courts when Mersch counter-sued Texas for possession of the Bibles.
The case has gone all the way to the Supreme Courts of both Oklahoma and Texas, she said.
In a strange twist, Oklahoma Judge Linda Morrissey ordered the 10 contested Bibles be secured in the Tulsa County Courthouse vault, where they remain today.
In another twist, members of the small First Presbyterian Church, Pasadena, Texas, where Stout was a member, took up his cause, tried unsuccessfully to visit him, wrote letters protesting that they were not allowed to and made the claim that all the property of the Apollo Prayer League belonged to the church, under whose authority the organization was established.
Church elders took Mersch’s side in the case and in 2014 officially assigned all rights and property of the league to her.
Stout died Dec. 8 at age 94.
Mersch’s Oklahoma attorney, Doug Dodd, said that following Stout’s death, the case was closed in Texas.
The un-auctioned Bible that sparked the lawsuit was returned to Mersch this month.
Dodd said an April 12 hearing was scheduled in Tulsa County to close out the case in Oklahoma. That hearing, in which Dodd said Judge Morrissey could order the 10 Bibles held in the courthouse returned to Mersch, was postponed this week until May 3.
Mersch, meantime, is not predicting the outcome of that hearing. But she said she’s determined to continue her lawsuit against the state of Texas to gain possession of all of the Apollo Prayer League’s materials.