Science Spacebound First Look

Why NASA had to give back a bag of moon dust to Chicago woman

A bag used during the first manned mission to the moon in 1969 was accidentally sold to Nancy Lee Carlson during an auction in 2015, much to NASA's dismay.

In 2015, Nancy Lee Carlson spotted an unusual auction item put up for sale by the US Marshals Service: a dusty, white bag with a small tear in it. 

But this wasn't just any old sack. In fact, the object was a decontamination bag used to store rock samples collected by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in 1969 during humanity’s first crewed mission to the moon.

“I guess you could call her a little bit of a space geek, maybe a hobbyist. She has an interest in these types of things and she saw this and it interested her,” Ms. Carlson’s attorney Christopher McHugh told CBS Chicago.

Excited, Ms. Carlson quickly became the highest bidder for the bag at auction, winning the priceless piece of history for the relatively low price of $995. The next step was verifying its authenticity, so she sent it to NASA to find if the bag was real. The agency soon confirmed the bag was from Apollo 11 that the dust inside the container was indeed moon dust, and deciding the bag of such historic value was never meant to have been sold, refused to send it back to Carlson. After a tense legal battle from Carlson's subsequent lawsuit against the federal agency, a US federal judge ordered NASA to finally return the bag, making her the only private citizen to win legal ownership of a lunar object previously sold by the US government.

The bag found its way to auction after it was seized by the government during an investigation against Max Ary, a former president of the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center museum. In 2005, Mr. Ary was convicted of stealing and auctioning off hundreds of objects from the museum's collection on the black market. 

Among the stolen items were two lunar bags, one from Apollo 11 and one from Apollo 17. But during the course of the investigation, a clerical error resulted in both pieces being given the same inventory identification number, and the Apollo 11 bag was accidentally auctioned off.

"This artifact was never meant to be owned by an individual," read a statement issued by NASA at the time of the lawsuit. "We believe [it] belongs to the American people and should be on display for the public, which is where it was before all of these unfortunate events occurred."

This was not the first time a moon-related object has found its way into auction without the approval of NASA.

"Millions of people are intrigued by space around the world," Joseph Gutheinz, a former special investigator for NASA who was one of the attorneys in the case, told the Chicago Tribune. "(Carlson) is one of them. She loves space. And she had the gumption not to back down."

As a result, he says, there is a sizable black market for moon rocks and similar items. He estimates that the US has given away more than 270 moon rocks to dignitaries and foreign nations over the decades, but many of these wind up illegally sold and have to be reacquired by the government through sting operations. He says that there are about 158 lunar objects that remain unaccounted for.

As far as Carlson is concerned, the bag will remain her own private property, but she has reportedly been considering the possibility displaying the container publicly, per NASA's wishes. She is expected to make an announcement to that end later this week.

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