WASHINGTON, July 21, 2017 — No one knew whether the collected lunar samples contained exotic, alien organisms that might trigger a pandemic if exposed to Earth’s atmosphere. This is why Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin secured their 50 pounds of moon rocks and lunar dust in a container call the Lunar Sample Return Chest, a box machined from a solid block of aluminum with an airtight rubber seal.
President Richard Nixon presented 135 nations as well as U.S. states and territories with moon rocks and plaques containing embedded lunar dust.
Needless to say, moon samples collected by spacefaring Americans are worth more than diamonds. That helps explain why so many of these extraterrestrial samples have gone missing.
According to NASA’s Office of Inspector General, the U.S. space agency has lost some 516 such “astromaterials” in the time between 1970 and 2010, including “18 lunar samples reported lost by a researcher in 2010 and 218 lunar and meteorite samples stolen from a researcher at Johnson [Space Center] in 2002.”
The Inspector General’s report also noted, “We learned of one researcher who still had lunar samples he had borrowed 35 years ago on which he had never conducted research.”
It’s clear NASA has not been the best steward of this lunar material, which was collected at a cost to U.S. taxpayers of 129 billion in today’s dollars.
No one is more aware of this than Chicago attorney Nancy Lee Carlson.
Back in 2015, Carlson’s curiosity was piqued when she saw a small, white zippered sack for sale on the U.S. government auction site forfeiture.gov. On the sack – what NASA calls a beta-cloth decontamination bag – were the words “LUNAR SAMPLE RETURN.”
Carlson posted the winning $995 bid.
The bag contained trace amounts of fine lunar dust, which was collected by Neil Armstrong a few feet from the Eagle lander, minutes after memorably saying he would take “one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Carlson became aware of these facts only after she sent her Internet purchase to NASA for authentication. NASA promptly informed Carlson they were keeping it.
The civilian space agency said the “artifact was never meant to be owned by an individual” and that it “belongs to the American people and should be on display for the public, which is where it was before all of these unfortunate events occurred.”
By “unfortunate events,” NASA was referring to the Max Ary incident. Ary, the former head of the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center museum sold hundreds of NASA artifacts on the black market, which included Armstrong’s bag-o-dust.
When the item was eventually recovered, someone at NASA mistakenly gave it the same cataloged number as its twin – yes, Neil and Buzz had two such bags with them during their 22-hour visit to the lunar Sea of Tranquility. And that’s how a NASA functionary mistakenly placed one of the bags on the auction block.
Last week, U.S. District Court Judge J. Thomas Marten ruled that Carlson purchased the bag in good faith and ordered NASA to return the item to its rightful owner.
Thursday, the 12 by 8½-inch bag and historic artifact sold at Sotheby’s auction house for $1.8 million: Truly a giant leap for Nancy Lee Carlson’s bank account.