Right after astronaut Neil Armstrong took that first "small step for man" on the surface of the moon in July 1969, he scooped up some lunar rocks, tucked them into a bag and brought them back to Earth. The moon rocks ended up in NASA hands just as expected, but the bag did not.
Instead, the bag, thought lost, was accidentally sold for $995 at a federal public auction in 2015 to Nancy Lee Carlson, a collector of space memorabilia and lawyer from the Chicago suburbs. And now it is slated to go on the auction block again, at Sotheby's this time, where it is expected to fetch between $2 million and $4 million.
NASA's lunar objects generally are not allowed to be privately owned, so the curators at Sotheby's auction house have concluded that this bag is likely one of the only ones in the world that can legally be sold because of a court ruling earlier this year that found Carlson to be the bag's owner.
Of course, the bag Apollo 11 astronauts Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin used to collect moon rocks was never supposed to be sold at auction, but that's what happened thanks to the combined forces of good old-fashioned theft and an inventory screw-up.
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.
While he'd been building up the museum collection, Ary had also been swiping and selling off hundreds of artifacts from the federal space program, as we've noted before. During the investigation, in 2003, government officials found a white bag in Ary's garage. It turned out the bag was the one Armstrong and Aldrin had used to collect moon rocks when they made history with the first lunar landing in 1969, but because of mixed-up inventory lists and item numbers, the government officials didn't know what they actually had.
And so they put the bag and other space artifacts on the auction block, where Carlson snapped it up for $995. (The bag that federal officials had assumed was the Apollo 11 bag — it was actually a bag from Apollo 17 — had sold at auction for $21,000 years before.)
Carlson sent the bag to the Johnson Space Center to find out what mission it had been used on. That's when the situation got complicated, because upon examining the bag, JSC officials realized it was the one used on the Apollo 11 mission, with the gray dust from the surface of the moon still ingrained in the fabric. NASA officials refused to give it back to Carlson and kept it at the JSC.
Carlson took NASA to court to get her bag back and earlier this year, a federal judge in Kansas ruled that he lacked the authority to nullify the sale of the bag and left it up to a federal judge in Houston to actually enforce the ruling. In March, U.S. District Judge Vanessa D. Gilmore in Houston ordered NASA to hand over the bag, as we noted.
"This artifact, we believe, 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," NASA stated after the decision was issued.
Carlson rolled up to the JSC, a security guard in an unmarked car in tow, and reclaimed the bag shortly after the ruling in March.
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While Carlson had originally planned to keep the bag and to go around and show it at local schools, once the whole ordeal became national news, her plans changed, according to the Chicago Tribune. Some of the proceeds will go to the Immune Deficiency Foundation and Bay Cliff Health Camp, according to Sotheby's, while Carlson plans to set up a scholarship for speech pathology at North Michigan University, her alma mater.
So despite the Indiana Jones-esque frustration of NASA officials, the bag will be sold on July 20, the 48th anniversary of the moment Armstrong first set foot on the moon.
NASA stated via email that despite the federal agency's disappointment in seeing the bag in the public domain, the agency has accepted the court's decision. But that doesn't mean NASA is happy about it.
"This artifact was never meant to be owned by an individual. Moreover, this artifact is important, not just for its scientific value, but also because it represents the culmination of a massive national effort involving a generation of Americans, including the astronauts who risked their lives in an effort to accomplish the most significant act humankind has ever achieved," NASA said.