Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon in July, 1969. When they returned to Earth, they filled out a customs declaration. Not even a successful moon mission could save the spacemen from red tape.
Last August, Buzz Aldrin tweeted out a picture of the customs declaration he filled out after he landed on Earth. The declaration was dated July 24th, the day that the spacecraft splashed into the Pacific Ocean near Honolulu.
The form was standard, its contents were not. The flight number they listed? APOLLO 11. The goods they declared? MOON ROCK and MOON DUST (all 50 pounds of the stuff). And their port of departure? The MOON.
This declaration is now handled by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. It’s Form 7507, and exists in nearly identical format today. Go ahead, you can fill it out yourself for fun.
Fortunately, astronauts no longer have to go through customs declarations after they return from space. A 1984 statute in the U.S. Federal Code (19 U.S. Code § 1484a) is titled “Articles returned from space not to be construed as importation.” It appears to be an amendment to the infamous Tariff Act of 1930, which is better known as the Smoot-Hawley Act. That’s the piece of legislation that raised U.S. tariffs on over 20,000 imported goods; because it helped spark a trade war, Ben Bernanke has identified it as being partly responsible for prolonging the Great Depression.
A few questions came to mind after we learned about the customs forms:
1. Wasn’t it a little incongruous that a law written in the 1930s governed customs in the Space Age?
2. Not everyone is as high-profile as astronauts, which means that they can’t receive statutory relief as easily as America’s heroes returning to Earth. How often does the CBP have to enforce outdated laws? And how many smaller shippers are languishing under rules that add unnecessary hassle to their lives?
3. The 1984 statute states that “The return of articles from space shall not be considered an importation, and an entry of such articles shall not be required, if such articles were previously launched into space from the customs territory of the United States aboard a spacecraft operated by, or under the control of, United States persons…” If something went up with the spacecraft, then it doesn’t have to go through customs when it comes back down.
So we have to ask: Is Elon Musk this enthusiastic about getting to Mars because he has something to smuggle?