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NASA Gives the Apollo Moon Bag Back to the Rightful Owner, Peacefully

The bag used to collect lunar rocks on the Apollo 11 mission is now back in the possession of its rightful owner.
The bag used to collect lunar rocks on the Apollo 11 mission is now back in the possession of its rightful owner.
Photo from NASA

The Apollo 11 moon rock bag is now back in the hands of its owner. That owner is not NASA. Instead, a Chicago woman, Nancy Lee Carlson, a collector of space memorabilia, has picked up the bag that she bought at an auction and then sent to the Johnson Space Center for testing back in August 2015.

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, as we've previously reported.

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 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.

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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 JSC to find out what mission it had been used on.

However, when JSC officials realized this was the very first moon rock bag, they refused to return it. Carlson took them to court over the matter and three months ago, a federal judge in Kansas ruled that he did not have the authority to undo the sale of the bag and left it up to a federal judge in Houston to actually enforce the ruling. On Friday U.S. District Judge Vanessa D. Gilmore in Houston ordered NASA to hand over the bag.

The exchange went smoothly. Carlson met with lawyers and security personnel Monday in Building 110 at the Johnson Space Center to retrieve her bag, according to the Houston Chronicle. She noted the rip in the bag that was there when she first purchased it has gotten larger. The bag was tucked into a metallic envelope by a security guard and left in an unmarked car. Carlson and her son left NASA's JSC in their own car, bound for Chicago.

It's unclear what she plans to do with the bag now that it is back in her possession. Based on the care with which she retrieved it, though, we're betting she's not going to use it as a springtime purse.

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