Exactly 48 years after Apollo 11’s lunar module Eagle touched down on the Moon’s surface, a cloth bag used by Neil Armstrong to collect rock samples was sold for $1.8 million at Sotheby’s auction house. However, not everyone is pleased with the idea of “selling off” these hugely important artifacts.
The bag, made of a material similar to the astronauts’ spacesuits, was used during the Apollo 11 Moon landings in July 1969 and still contains traces of the original Moon dust.
Along with the bag, Sotheby’s sold over $3.8 million worth of space memorabilia at the auction in New York on July 20. Auctioneers were actually expecting the bag to go under the hammer for considerably more, somewhere between £2 million to $4 million. This is the most expensive artifact from the US space program ever sold, although the most pricey piece of space history remains the Soviet Vostok 3KA space capsule, which sold for $2.9 million in 2011.
The bag’s journey to the Moon was just the beginning of its adventure. It was one of the few pieces of equipment from the Apollo 11 mission that didn’t end up in a Smithsonian museum. Somehow, the artifact laid unidentified in a box at the Johnson Space Center in Houston for decades due to an inventory error.
Just before it was thrown out by the staff at the space center, it was passed onto collectors from a space museum in Kansas, who were still unaware of its true value and provenance. Then, in 2015, the museum owner was convicted of theft, fraud and, money laundering. The box was seized by the FBI and auctioned off for a measly $995 to Nancy Lee Carlson, a lawyer from Illinois.
She sent the object to NASA for analysis, after suspecting the bag contained Moon dust. However, the space agency decided to keep it, saying it “belongs to the American people”. A long legal battle ensued and the bag was eventually handed back to Carlson. Since it has just sold for $1.8 million, she’s no doubt pretty pleased about that.
However, some people say that this auction should not be legal. For All Moonkind is a non-profit organization seeking to preserve the six human lunar landing sites as part of our human heritage through an official agreement by the United Nations. They argue selling this artifact to a private collector is against the spirit of space exploration.
“The bag belongs in a museum, so the entire world can share in and celebrate the universal human achievement it represents,” Michelle Hanlon, “space lawyer” and co-founder of For All Moonkind, said in a statement.
“The decision by Nancy Lee Carlson and Sotheby’s to auction off an Apollo 11 Lunar Sample Return Decontamination Bag is a sobering wake-up call.”