About two years ago, the Chicago-area attorney Nancy Lee Carlson was perusing an online auction site when she saw a listing for a bag containing “lunar dust” as part of an auction on behalf of the U.S. Marshals Service. No one had bid on the item in three previous auctions, and Carlson easily won the lot (which also included several other items) with a bid of $995.
As she later told Kelly Crow of the Wall Street Journal, Carlson had been fascinated by the moon landings growing up, and set out to confirm the history of her new purchase. In September 2015, she shipped the bag, which was marked “lunar sample return,” to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for testing.
When NASA tested the pouch, they found it definitely contained lunar dust, a fine grey powder resembling graphite. In fact, it contained some of the very first moon dust ever collected, by the Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong back in July 1969. After Armstrong and fellow astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin returned to Earth, the bag containing the lunar sample had somehow been misplaced and forgotten; it wasn’t included with the hundreds of Apollo 11 artifacts Johnson Space Center sent to the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum.
According to later court records, around 1981 NASA reportedly lent the bag to Max Ary, who was then the director of a museum called the Kansas Cosmosphere. Ary was later convicted of theft after he auctioned off some other NASA artifacts; he served two years in prison. When the FBI raided his home, they seized a number of artifacts including the zippered bag with the lunar sample. After being turned over to the U.S. Marshals, it was auctioned off to pay restitution in the case.
NASA refused to send the bag back to Carlson, saying it was government property, an in mid-2016, Carlson sued the agency in U.S. District Court in Chicago for wrongful seizure of property. She won that case in December, and NASA was forced to return the item. The agency decided not to appeal the court’s decision, but a spokesman told Crow that NASA believes the dust should be displayed to the public, as 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.”
Carlson brought the bag to Sotheby’s, where it will go on sale as the centerpiece of the auction house’s Space Exploration sale in New York on July 20, the 48th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing. It will be the first space-focused sale Sotheby’s has held since the 1990s, when they held two hugely popular auctions of material from the Soviet space program.
The auction house expects the pouch containing lunar dust to bring in as much as $2-4 million, due to both its rarity and its enormous historic importance. “It’s fantastic that there’s moon dust on it, don’t get me wrong,” Cassandra Hatton, a vice president and senior specialist at Sotheby’s, told HISTORY. “But I think the role that it plays in this mission is far more important. The fact that it was the bag used to protect the first lunar samples, and it was something that was used on the Apollo 11 mission, by the first man that walked on the moon. As a relic of history, it’s far more important than moon dust.”
Though some lunar samples have been known to show up on the black market, the July event also represents the first legal sale of artifacts from the historic mission. While there’s technically no law saying an individual can’t own lunar material, Hatton explained, NASA retained tight control of all the material collected during the missions. “They didn’t allow anybody to give it as gifts to individuals, none of the astronauts were allowed to keep any dust or rocks,” she noted. “So if you were in possession of dust or rocks, it would have to have been stolen. That is their position. But this–because it was sold on behalf of the U.S. government, it becomes a different story.”
According to Sotheby’s, Carlson plans to donate some of the proceeds from the sale of the bag to various charities, including the Immune Deficiency Foundation and the Bay Cliff Health Camp Children’s Therapy and Wellness Center. She also intends to set up a scholarship for students studying speech pathology at Northern Michigan University, her alma mater.
Aside from the moon dust-smeared Apollo 11 collection bag, the Space Exploration sale at Sotheby’s will feature a wide array of other material, ranging from books signed by astronauts to spacesuits to photographs, maps and globes. Hatton told HISTORY that one artifact, which had just arrived on her desk, “just knocked my socks off the moment I opened up the box, when I realized what it was.” The original flight plan from Apollo 13, the document actually flew with the astronauts during that historic mission, and contains all their annotations. It was given as a gift to Bob Lindsey, who helped write the Apollo 13 flight plan, as a thank-you, Hatton explained. “Fred Haise [Apollo 13’s lunar module pilot] actually inscribed it to him, and Jim Lovell and Jack Swigert signed it.”