Book of Mormon that traveled to the moon makes a Utah landing

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Astronaut John Young's signature on a Book of Mormon that went to the moon in 1972. Photographed in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019.

Before it is auctioned to the highest bidder, a one-of-a-kind Book of Mormon carried to the moon in 1972 will make a two-day landing in Utah.

The pocket-size gem — worth an estimated $150,000 — will be on display Thursday at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in Salt Lake City and Friday at B. Ashworth’s in Provo. (See details below)

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — and fans of NASA space memorabilia — can learn about the book’s heavenly travels and how, after returning to Earth, it helped unite a family.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A Book of Mormon that went to the moon in 1972. Photographed in Salt Lake City on Wednesday Oct. 2, 2019.

Bound in white faux leather, the “triple combination” volume — containing the Book of Mormon, the faith’s signature scripture, along with the Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price — was signed and certified by astronaut John Young, the commander of Apollo 16 who died last year.

It’s one of several historical pieces that belonged to NASA photographer M. Edward Thomas that are being sold through Boston’s RR Auction. Other items in the online offering — which runs Oct. 11-17 — include original photographs, lithographs, cameras and collectibles gathered during Thomas’ 25-year career at the Kennedy Space Center.

It is the rare Book of Mormon — and the role it played in Thomas becoming a Latter-day Saint — that stand out, Bobby Livingston, executive vice president of RR Auction, said Wednesday. “It’s an important sacred text flown to the moon — that proved pivotal to one man’s conversion. This is a truly awe-inspiring relic of Apollo 16.”

Brent Ashworth has been collecting rare books and items for more than 60 years, “but I didn’t know that a Book of Mormon had gone to the moon until a few months ago," he said. “It’s fascinating.”

On Friday, he plans to display the rare book at his Provo store along with some of his personal NASA memorabilia, including a flag and a portion of a Bible that flew on separate Apollo missions.

He’d like to buy the lunar-bound Book of Mormon for his collection, but the six-figure price is too hefty. Ashworth said it’s likely that an anonymous bidder will purchase it and donate it to the church.

That’s an outcome that Thomas, who died in 2001, likely would appreciate.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Astronaut John Young's signature on a Book of Mormon that went to the moon in 1972. Photographed in Salt Lake City on Wednesday Oct. 2, 2019.

As a NASA photographer, Thomas — known as Ed — spent countless hours with American astronauts and grew to be their friends, said his oldest son, Phil Thomas. “The astronauts would come to our house. But we [he and his siblings] didn’t know how famous they were. We called them by their first names.”

Before Apollo 16 made its lunar journey, Ed Thomas asked the Apollo 16 commander if he planned to take a Bible on the trip. Young thought it would be a good idea, and Thomas promised to provide him with one.

Thomas’ wife, Ruth, who unlike her husband was a Latter-day Saint, was hesitant to send the family’s heirloom Bible, fearing it may not return if tragedy struck.

Instead, she offered her purse-size Book of Mormon. Even then, she worried it might not come back. Before handing it over, she wrote in the end page “Please return to: Ruth C. Thomas, (Mrs. Ed Thomas)" and included the family’s Satellite Beach, Fla., address and ZIP code.

Years later, the Thomas family was invited to a dinner at the church-owned Desert Farms Ranch, near Orlando, and encouraged to bring the space-going Book of Mormon to show the evening’s special guest — Spencer W. Kimball, the church president at the time.

Thomas wrote in his journal that when Kimball saw the book, the leader quipped, “This is one book that is truly out of this world."

Thomas and Kimball grew to be close friends, and Thomas served as a photographer for a number of Kimball’s trips and special events.

On one occasion, Kimball asked Thomas why he had never joined the church. Thomas said he just couldn’t believe that a young 14-year-old boy, Joseph Smith, could translate the Book of Mormon.

Kimball encouraged Thomas to read it, cover to cover, and see if it didn’t change his mind.

Thomas did what Kimball asked. He read the book and then began church discussions with missionaries. He was baptized Oct. 5, 1981, and later was sealed to Ruth in the iconic Salt Lake Temple.

“It united our family,” Phil Thomas said of his father’s conversion.

It’s one of the reasons, the Book of Mormon display comes in advance of this weekend’s General Conference — so members can see the book, Thomas said. “We want people to appreciate the fact that a little bit of LDS heritage is mixed into man’s flight to the moon."

Faith in Space • Free display of the Book of Mormon that flew on Apollo 16.

Thursday, Oct. 3 • 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Joseph Smith Memorial Building, The Presidents Room, 15 E. South Temple, Salt Lake City.

Friday, Oct. 4 • 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., B. Ashworth’s Rare Books, Provo Town Square, Suite 3, 65 N University Ave.