This is how a NASA sample of lunar dust came to be sold at a public auction for $500,000

Written By: Moohita Kaur Garg WION Web Team
New York, United States Updated: Apr 14, 2022, 12:56 PM(IST)

This stickiness caused a little bit of sand to stick to the Teflon bag which was then kept in a zip-lock bag for safekeeping. This “sticky” bit of sand is what was sold in this auction. (Photo courtesy: Bonhams auction house & AFP) Photograph:( Others )

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As per a report by National Geographic, in 2002 it was discovered that Max Ary, the museum’s co-founder had been smuggling museum artefacts for his personal gain and this bag was one of those items

A sample of moon dust collected by Neil Armstrong during the historic Apollo 11 mission, that first put humans on the Moon went under the hammer and was sold for a whopping $504,375 at an auction on Wednesday.

Even though this is a huge amount, the estimated auction price was much higher. As per Bonhams the auctioneers in charge of this sale, it was expected to sell for between $800,000 and $1.2 million.

We’re sure you must be wondering how this lunar dust, which is bound to be a scientific sample came to be sold at a private auction. Well, it’s a really interesting and whacky story, but can be summed up as a ‘court order’.

Also read | Lunar samples collected by Neil Armstrong, first person to walk on the Moon, are heading to auction

Now for the full story.

Let’s start with how this sample was collected. When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin reached the lunar surface back in 1969, Armstrong told the Apollo Mission Control Centre, Houston, Texas, that the sand was “almost like powder”.

Armstrong, Aldrin

He then proceeded to collect a sample and seal it in a Teflon bag. 

Solar wind regularly blasts the surface of the airless moon, adding an electric charge to the fine-grained dust, also known as regolith. This charge causes lunar regolith to ‘stick’ to everything, including the astronauts' boots, gloves, suits, cords, tools etc.

Watch | A new frontier in space exploration

This stickiness caused a little bit of sand to stick to the Teflon bag which was then kept in a zip-lock bag for safekeeping. This “sticky” bit of sand is what was sold in this auction.

Lunar dust

NASA has long argued that the lunar rocks and dust obtained during the Apollo flights are government property that cannot be acquired by private individuals.

However, a couple of decades ago NASA had loaned that outer ziplock bag along with some other artefacts to the Cosmosphere space museum in Hutchinson, Kansas. From there, it disappeared.

As per a report by National Geographic, in 2002 it was discovered that Max Ary, the museum’s co-founder had been smuggling museum artefacts for his personal gain and this bag was one of those items. Ary faced a three-year jail term and a $132,000 fine.

Also read | Solar system's most distant planet presents unexplained shift in temperature

The bag was then sold to Nancy Lee Carlson, for $995 in 2015 at a US Marshal's auction. Labelled as a “flown zippered lunar sample return bag with lunar dust”, it intrigued Carlson and she then sent the sample to NASA for verification.

Now comes the wacky part, NASA confirmed that the samples were genuine and refused to return them to Carlson. 

She then filed a case against the space agency for wrongful confiscation and that...is how it came to be sold for more than $500,000. 

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