The first-ever collected sample of moon dust is headed to auction in New York on April 13, against the wishes of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), according to Forbes’ Carlie Porterfield. Bonhams, the auction house conducting the sale, estimates the specimens from Neil Armstrong’s famous Apollo 11 moon walk could fetch between $800,000 to $1.2 million, according to a press release. Portions of the proceeds will go to scientific charities.
This is the first time NASA-verified moon dust will be legally sold, despite the space organization’s efforts, according to Rebecca Heilweil for Vox. NASA’s battle to keep lunar dust out of private hands goes back decades, leading to numerous court disputes against individuals who have somehow obtained samples from the organization’s 1969 Apollo program. While NASA has won many of these disputes, ownership claims over the Bonham auction dust samples broke free of the legal hurdles after the space agency lost a number of court battles.On July 16, 1969, Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins blasted off on the historic Apollo 11 mission to land humans on the moon. With Collins piloting the Command Module orbiting the moon, Armstrong and Aldrin reached the moon’s surface aboard the Lunar Module, where they were tasked by NASA to collect moon material for study back on Earth. “We were told: Save the moon rocks first. We only have one bag of rocks. We have lots of astronauts,” joked Mike Mallory, of the Apollo 11 frogman recovery team, according to historical sources cited in the lot description
Upon the crew’s return, the moon dust—stored in a contingency bag— was loaned to the Cosmosphere space museum in Hutchinson, Kansas, for safekeeping. A good plan, except for the fact that the museum’s then-director, Max Ary, was later caught illegally auctioning off the space artifacts NASA had loaned to the institution, reports Caroline Goldstein for Artnet. Upon Ary’s conviction in 2005, the U.S. Marshals Service seized numerous stolen space artifacts, including the bag of space dust.
U.S. Marshalls put that bag up for auction and geology enthusiast and lawyer Nancy Lee Carlson purchased it for $995 in a lot that also included an Apollo command module headrest and a launch key for the Soviet Soyuz T-14 spacecraft. Suspecting the moon dust was worth more than what she paid for it, Carlson sent the bag to NASA for authentication in 2015. NASA confirmed that the moon dust was real, and asserted that it was government property, refusing to send it back.
Unfortunately for NASA, the judge ruling Carlson’s resulting lawsuit against the agency determined that since Carlson had bought the bag, it was legally hers to keep. Carlson sold the bag in 2017 for $1.8 million at Sotheby’s, unaware that it was missing some of the moon dust she originally purchased, per Artnet.
When they were testing the bag, NASA had used small pieces of carbon tape to collect moon dust traces, which they transferred to a set of small aluminum disks the agency held onto even after returning the bag. Carlson re-sued NASA for damage to the bag and theft, which led NASA to eventually settle and return almost all of the moon dust. She later sold the samples in a 2017 Sotheby’s auction where it fetched $1,812,500.
Now those samples will be part of Bonhams space-themed auction later this month, which also includes an aluminum fragment from Sputnik 1, and a full-sized mock-up Explorer 1 nose cone from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Army Ballistic Missile Agency, per Artnet.
Adam Stackhouse, the Bonhams specialist overseeing the auction, tells Forbes the “Billionaire Space Race” with the likes of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson has “stirred up the market” for space material.
“This represents something that really captivated the world,” Stackhouse tells Vox. “These other missions? It’s not the same. It’s not as exciting to people.”
There is currently less than a pound of moon dust globally, reports Vox. In 2018, dust samples collected by the Soviet space program sold for $855,000. Meanwhile, the China’s Chang’e spacecraft collected nearly four pounds of moon dust samples from its 2020 rover lunar mission.