Apollo 11 Bag Sold in NASA Mixup to Be Auctioned Thursday, Asking $2 Million

The bag astronaut Neil Armstrong carried with him when he walked on the moon is likely to fetch a high price at auction on Thursday. It's the American way, really.
The bag astronaut Neil Armstrong carried with him when he walked on the moon is likely to fetch a high price at auction on Thursday. It's the American way, really. Photo courtesy of NASA
Tomorrow is the 48th anniversary of the moment millions of people watched, collectively holding their breath, as astronaut Neil Armstrong's white boots left the Lunar Module ladder and gently touched down on the surface of the moon.

In keeping with the solemnity of the occasion, the bag Armstrong used when he took "one small step for man" in 1969 is going on the auction block Thursday at Sotheby's, where it is expected to fetch $2 million.

There are tons of other space exploration objects being put up for bid — everything from Sputnik models to signed Project Mercury photos to a Snoopy astronaut doll, signed by astronaut Gene Cernan, who died earlier this year — but the Apollo 11 moon rock bag is the true star of the show.

The sale of the bag will both commemorate the historic day and mark the true end of a legal battle between NASA officials and the woman who unwittingly purchased the bag in 2015 for $995, as we've noted before.

The moon rock bag was never supposed to be sold, of course. More than a decade ago various space artifacts, including museum pieces and items on loan from NASA, started disappearing from the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center, triggering a U.S. Marshals Service investigation. In the end, it turned out the culprit behind the missing items was the man who had put the Kansas space museum on the map in the first place, museum curator Max Ary, according to court records.

Ary had spent a lot of time and effort curating for the museum, but he also swiped and sold off a number of artifacts from the federal space program. When authorities were sorting through the items in Ary's house in 2003, they found a white bag in his garage.

It was the bag Armstrong and astronaut Buzz Aldrin had used to collect moon rocks during Apollo 11, the first lunar landing, but because of an inventory mix-up, the bag was thought to be from the still-cool-but-way-less-historic Apollo 17 mission. The bag was sent to auction, where a woman named Nancy Carlson snapped it up.

Carlson, a space history buff, was curious about the bag so she sent it to Johnson Space Center in Houston to find out on what mission the bag had been used. And once NASA officials looked the bag over, they realized it was from the Apollo 11 mission and refused to return it.

Carlson took NASA to court over this — and won. She came down to Houston to retrieve the bag, handing it off to a security guard in a dark car and then driving away herself, separately.

While Carlson had initially stated she intended to take the bag around to area schools (Carlson lives in Chicago), she ultimately changed her mind and agreed to sell the bag through Sotheby's. Carlson has stated that some of the proceeds will go to the Immune Deficiency Foundation and the Bay Cliff Health Camp, and she intends to use some of the money to set up a scholarship for speech pathology at North Michigan University, Carlson's alma mater.

That may sound like a lot of plans, but keep in mind that this bag represents a rare opportunity to legally own one of NASA's lunar objects, so the bidding, while expected to reach at least $2 million, has the potential to go even higher.

We've asked NASA if officials intend to bid on the bag themselves — the federal space agency has steadfastly maintained the bag is a historic artifact and does not belong in a private collection — but haven't heard back yet. We'll update as soon as we do.
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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray