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The tangled trail of a priceless moon rock memento from Apollo 11

🕐 3 min read

Under most circumstances the bag would not have merited a second glance, it being a yellowing flap of fabric encircled by a bronze zipper. The block letters that read “Lunar Sample Return” stitched on the side, however, undermine its unremarkable appearance — a giveaway the sack had a role in greater things.

To Nancy Carlson, a resident of Illinois who purchased the bag at government auction in 2015, the bag was worth at least $995.

To a government agency — NASA — it is a priceless memento improperly plucked from the annals of space exploration. NASA now has the bag. Carlson argues the bag should be hers, and, as the Associated Press reported, is suing to get it back.

The story of the bag begins in 1969, when the item, along with Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, were blasted toward the moon at 25,000 miles per hour. Once on the lunar surface, the bag became a receptacle for rock samples, holding the first of the 2,200 moon specimens NASA would collect over the various Apollo missions. Due to the moon crumbs stuck to the bag’s fibers — as well as its role in bringing part of the satellite back to earth — the government considers it “a rare artifact, if not a national treasure,” according to the AP.

Like many items from the era of moon exploration, the post-mission bag became a museum artifact. It ended up on loan from NASA at the Cosmosphere, an aerospace and space museum in Kansas, where the bag would once again take a turn away from the ordinary.

Max Ary, who founded the Cosmosphere and ran it for 26 years, was convicted in 2005 for stealing government property — items from the museum — and selling the objects. An audit two years prior uncovered the fact that 400 items had vanished from the Cosmosphere, which prompted the investigation, according to the Hutchinson News. While authorities were searching Ary’s garage, they discovered the Apollo 11 bag. By that point, Ary had made $180,000 for selling an astronaut’s tee shirt, a rocket nose and other space artifacts, Tech Times reported.

Ary claimed he was innocent — which he has continued to maintain — arguing he mistakenly included artifacts from the museum in his personal collection of memorabilia. The jury did not buy Ary’s version of the events; the museum founder would eventually serve 2 out of 3 years sentenced to prison and pay over $100,000.

Meanwhile, the bag was confiscated. Due to an office error, the sack was mislabeled as a bag from the 1972 Apollo 17 mission — thought to be less valuable, as that bag was not used to hold moon rock. Carlson purchased the item in February 2015. Carlson sent it to Johnson Space Center in Houston so the bag could be authenticated. There, NASA determined the truth. It was the bag from Ary’s garage, and the moon before that.

As attorneys for NASA wrote, according to Universe Today, the agency would have refused to allow the sale had it been notified. “NASA was denied the opportunity to assert its interest in the lunar bag. Had NASA been given notice of the forfeiture action and/or had all the facts about the lunar bag been known, the lunar [sample return] bag would never have gone to a government auction.” NASA has asked the U.S. District Court in Kansas to rescind the sale, though the agency offered Carlson $1,000 plus the price she paid at auction.

Carlson, meanwhile, has sued NASA for “unwarranted seizure of my personal property. . . without any legal provocation,” according to Universe Today, as well as the agency’s refusal to return the bag.

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