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NASA Accidentally Sold a Precious Apollo Artifact

A seemingly simple bag is at the center of multiple lawsuits

NASA put a man on the moon, but it's been tricky to hold onto the bags used to bring back lunar samples. (NASA)
smithsonian.com

"Whoops moments" abound in everyday life—it’s easy to lose your keys, embarrass yourself in public or accidentally sell a priceless artifact from the Apollo 11 lunar mission. Well, the last one is not that common, but as Roxana Hegeman reports for the Associated Press, it’s what recently happened to NASA when the agency inadvertently sold a bag that once housed the first sample of lunar material ever collected to an Illinois woman.

The bag was taken to the moon by the Apollo 11 spacecraft in July 1969 and contains, according to a government station, “lunar material embedded in its fabric.” Emblazoned with the words “Lunar Sample Return,” the bag was used by astronauts to take moon rocks back to Earth.

But as CollectSpace.com reports, the bag has had a checkered past since then. In 2003, it was found among the effects of Max Ary, the former president of the Kansas Cosmosphere, who was convicted of stealing and selling space artifacts from the museum. In 2005, Ary was indicted on charges of stealing over 400 space-related items on loan from NASA and other institutions. Hegeman explains that the bag was initially forfeited by Ary to pay for his restitution costs. But due to an error in NASA’s system, the bag was confused with another space bag from a later lunar landing, and was then accidentally sold to an Illinois woman for just $995 at auction.

Once NASA realized the mix up, the agency did not hand over the priceless bag. But Nancy Lee Carlson, who purchased it at auction, claims it is rightfully hers and filed a lawsuit. NASA responded with its own lawsuit against Ary in an attempt to regain the bag.

In a statement, the government told Hegeman that the bag is “a rare artifact, if not a national treasure.”

This isn’t the first time NASA has come across contentious, precious bags from lunar missions past. In 2015, Neil Armstrong’s widow, Carol Held Knight, found a white bag filled with space artifacts that flew with him to the moon inside a closet. The astronaut had apparently stowed them there before his death. That story had a happy ending—Knight donated them to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, where they are being preserved for the public.

It may take a few lawsuits to get there, but perhaps NASA’s “whoops” moment can turn into a happy ending for the bag, which carries a small but priceless piece of space history.

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