KANSAS CITY, Mo. — How about some hints of moon dust? The real stuff. Apollo 11 vintage. Neil Armstrong, 1969.

What might have been a monumental windfall for the man who transformed a planetarium in Hutchinson, Kan., into a world-class space museum – and then served two years of federal time for selling some of its artifacts – or for the Cosmosphere and Space Center itself, instead belongs to a rock-loving lawyer who got lucky with an overlooked online auction for $995.

Although NASA never wanted lunar rocks or the moon’s powdery dust traded on the open market, sloppy space souvenir record-keeping a generation ago somehow let a prize slip through.

Later, the lawyer wrestled the bag back from the same NASA folks who confirmed it was laced with real moon bits.

This summer, gilded auction agency Sotheby’s will put that “lunar sample return bag” – an Apollo 11 carrying case still encrusted with moon dust and rocks in its fabric – up for bid. The auction house expects to get north of $2 million for the moonshot relic.

First-ever moonwalker Armstrong stuck the purselike pouch in a pocket of his spacesuit after taking surface samples following his “giant leap for mankind.”


Scientists back on Earth would study the dust he stashed away. But the agency that could land a man on the moon couldn’t keep track of everything that was used on the voyage.

The zippered bag would eventually get tossed with other Apollo detritus, work its way to the Cosmophere’s basement and then land in its former director’s garage.

When that museum boss, Max Ary, later was convicted of selling Cosmosphere property and pocketing the proceeds, much of his own space memorabilia was seized, stored for a decade, and then sold to pay his fines and restitution to the Cosmosphere.

Two years ago, the U.S. Marshals Service put the bag up for auction along with a launch key for a Soviet 1980s spacecraft Soyuz T-14 and a headrest for an Apollo command module. Nancy Lee Carlson, a real estate attorney from Inverness, Ill., snatched it up on a whim.

She was the only bidder, likely because there was no indication that it came with moon dust, or that it flew on the first manned mission to touch down on Earth’s original satellite.

Only after she sent it to the Johnson Space Center in Houston to authenticate it did the item’s true value get certified. After NASA confirmed the bag came from Apollo 11, it refused to return the pouch to Carlson. NASA contended it had never intended to give the artifact away, and the space agency wasn’t letting it go.


So she sued. In December, U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Marten in Wichita ruled that even if the sale by the Marshals Service was a mistake, the government had no authority to reverse the purchase. It was hers.

In February, Carlson took security guards to Houston to pick up the bag and has since contracted Sotheby’s for another auction – this one with the bag’s true value obvious.

“The bag that was used to bring back to Earth the very first sample of lunar material ever collected,” boasts Sotheby’s. “Traces of the moon dust and small rocks are still deeply embedded in the fabric of the bag … (an) exceptionally rare relic of humanity’s greatest achievement – landing a man on the moon.”

In fact, in the court fight over whether Carlson could get the bag back from NASA, the government described the bag as “a rare artifact, if not a national treasure.”

Contacted for this article, bag owner Carlson referred queries to Sotheby’s. She did tell The Wall Street Journal that she hopes to use some proceeds from a July 20 sale in New York to fund scientific and medical research.

“That’s why we started the space program,” she said. “We wanted to go beyond.”

NASA has given up its fight for the bag, but not its contention that the item should have stayed with the space agency.

“It was primarily through the unlawful activity of a third party that put this historical artifact into the public domain,” the Johnson Space Center said in a statement. “This artifact was never meant to be owned by an individual.”

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