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Judge Says Woman Legally Bought Apollo 11 Moonrock Bag from NASA

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The bag Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin used to collect moon rocks and tote the lunar goods back home in was never supposed to be sold at auction, but that's what happened.

On Wednesday Judge J. Thomas Marten, of the U.S. District Court in Wichita, Kansas, ruled that he doesn't have the authority to undo the sale of the bag, which now belongs to a woman in Illinois, according to the Associated Press.

So how did the moon rock bag end up on the auction block?

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. Marshal's 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. During the investigation, in 2003, government officials found a white bag in Ary's garage. It turned out the bag was the one Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had used to collect moon rocks in when they made history with the first lunar landing, in July 1969, but because of mixed-up inventory lists and item numbers, the government officials didn't know what they actually had.

They thought Ary had already sold the Apollo 11 moon rock bag for more than $21,000 at auction in 2001, but the bag purchased at auction then was actually a moon rock bag from the Apollo 17 lunar landing mission in 1972.

In 2005, Ary was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison. (Ary, who has always insisted on his innocence, explaining that he wasn't stealing the artifacts but simply mixed them up with those in his personal collection, eventually served most of his time and was released in 2010, as we've previously noted.)

The government that had confiscated his private collection had to figure out what to do with it, including the bag that still had lunar material embedded in it from that historic mission when Armstrong took that one tiny step that was a giant leap for mankind.

Anyway, since NASA officials had no idea what they had, they didn't know not to let the moon rock bag go to the auction block along with the other artifacts confiscated from Ary under a final forfeiture order. The bag was sold to Nancy Carlson, of Inverness, Illinois. She bought it for $995 knowing only that it had been used on one of NASA's flights, but with no clue as to which one.

NASA officials only realized what they'd managed to unknowingly regain and lose when Carlson sent the bag to the Johnson Space Center to see if the agency could authenticate it.

The center did, and subsequently refused to give the item back. Carlson filed a lawsuit against NASA in federal court demanding the space agency return the bag, which it has yet to do.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Attorney's Office wanted Judge Marten to nix the sale to Carlson entirely, canceling out the forfeiture order since the bag was misidentified. But on Wednesday the judge decided he doesn't have the right to cancel a legal bill of sale, concluding that the bag belongs to Carlson.

Marten acknowledged in his opinion that NASA was getting screwed on this since their “amazing technical achievements, skill and courage in landing astronauts on the moon and returning them safely have not been replicated in the almost half a century since the Apollo 11 landing.”

He didn't actually tell NASA to give the bag back to Carlson, though, instead suggesting that perhaps the two sides can work something out.

So while NASA doesn't own the bag, the Johnson Space Center probably still has it, and it doesn't sound like JSC will be giving it up easily.

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