On the outside, the plain white bag seems unremarkable. But inside, it’s laced with an exquisite and extremely valuable material: moon dust.
Neil Armstrong stuffed this sack with the world’s first samples of lunar rocks during the Apollo 11 mission in 1969. Traces of dust still remain in the outer decontamination bag, which includes a label reading “LUNAR SAMPLE RETURN.”
Sotheby’s New York said the dinner plate-sized bag could fetch up to $4 million when it goes on the auction block on July 20 the 48th anniversary of the Apollo 11’s historic first moon landing.
“The only such relic available for private ownership, it is exceptionally rare,” Sotheby’s said on its website.
NASA won’t be reaping the benefits, however.
In a space-themed comedy of errors, Armstrong initially turned the zippered bag over to scientists at a Houston lab, but the U.S. space agency forgot about it over time. Decades later, the government mistakenly auctioned off the bag along with other space exploration memorabilia.
Nancy Lee Carlson, a Chicago-area attorney and self-proclaimed space nerd, bought the pouch and other items for just $995. Suspecting it contained more than fibers and zippers, she sent her bag to NASA for testing.
That’s when NASA scientists realized they’d lost the world’s original bag of moon dust, and they refused to forfeit it a second time. Carlson fought back and, after a protracted legal battle, a U.S. District Court ordered NASA to return the bag in February.
NASA said it won’t appeal the ruling, but the agency is still salty about the outcome.
William Jeffs, a NASA spokesman, said NASA thinks the bag should be on public display 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,” he told the Wall Street Journal.
But Carlson isn’t exactly a moon-digger. The attorney plans to donate a portion of the sale proceeds to charity, and to establish a scholarship at her alma mater, Northern Michigan University, Reuters reported.
Sotheby’s, meanwhile, is downright giddy. Apart from this court-ordered exception, NASA doesn’t allow individuals to own any bits of the moon, which is why this bag is likely to fetch millions, said Cassandra Hatton, a senior specialist at the auction house.
“This is my Mona Lisa moment,” she told the Journal.
The moon dust bag will be the shining star of Sotheby’s first space exploration-themed sale, which will also include items from the personal collections of astronauts; signed photographs, maps, and charts; as well as engineering models and 3-D objects.