Moon-Rock Bag That Brought First-Ever Lunar Samples to Earth Could Fetch $4M at Sotheby's

5-22-17 Lunar Sample Return
An Apollo 11 Contingency Lunar Sample Return Bag, used by astronaut Neil Armstrong on Apollo 11 to bring back the very first pieces of the moon ever collected, is seen in an undated photo supplied by Sotheby's auction house in New York on May 19. The bag, which contains traces of the collected samples, is the only such relic available for private ownership. Sotheby's/Reuters

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong uttered his famous words: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Armstrong was the first human ever to set foot on the surface of the moon, and he radioed his colleague, Buzz Aldrin, to describe it. “The surface is fine and powdery. I can kick it up loosely with my toe,” he said, according to Newsweek’s coverage of the mission. As part of their brief sojourn on the moon, Armstrong and Aldrin collected samples of the dust and rocks that covered a region called the Sea of Tranquility.

On the 48th anniversary of that staggering milestone, Sotheby’s will auction off a bag containing the first lunar samples Armstrong ever collected and brought back to Earth. The “Contingency Lunar Sample Return Decontamination Bag,” which appeared on the Apollo 11 stowage list, still contains traces of dust and rock. The July sale will be the first legal one of such an artifact from the Apollo 11 mission, Jim Hull, head of exhibits and artifacts at NASA, told Reuters. The auction house expects it to fetch $2 million to $4 million.

“This seemingly modest bag was part of mankind’s greatest journey and played a crucial role in the single most important scientific task of the Apollo 11 mission—to bring back the very first sample of lunar material ever collected,” Cassandra Hatton, vice president and senior specialist in charge of the Sotheby’s sale, said in a statement. “It is one thing to read about going to the moon; it is quite another to hold in one’s hands an object that was actually there, and that still carries traces of that faraway place.”

Sotheby’s shares an exchange between Armstrong and Command Module Pilot Michael Collins about the bag that was captured by the mission’s onboard voice recordings:

Armstrong: If you want to have a look at what the moon looks like, you can open that up and look. Don’t open the bag though.
Collins: What was that bag?
Armstrong: Contingency sample.
Collins: Rock?
Armstrong: Yes, there’s some rocks in it too…

The bag, it seems, is the one described in Newsweek ’s July 28, 1969 issue:

At first Armstrong moved stiffly in his bulky suit but his confidence grew quickly. He moved away from the Eagle and scooped up the contingency sample—the handful of lunar soil that would have been the crewmen’s consolation prize if they had been forced to cut short their planned 22-hour stay on the moon. “It’s a little difficult,” the astronaut told Earth. “It’s a very soft surface, but here and there where I bored with the contingency sample collector, I ran into a very hard surface. It appears to be very cohesive material of the same sort. I’m trying to get a rock in here… He grunted with the exertion, but collected his sample and managed to stuff the bag into a special pocket on the left leg of his suit.

The bag’s history is fraught with drama. The government had seized it as part of a criminal case against Max Ary, the former director of the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center who was convicted of stealing and selling space artifacts from the museum, sentenced to three years in prison and ordered to pay restitution.

Also there was some confusion that led to the bag’s historical significance being missed, and Nancy Lee Carlson, a corporate attorney and space collector, purchased it for $995 at an auction held on behalf of the U.S. Marshals Service in February 2015. When she sent it to NASA to have it tested to confirm there was moon dust inside, the space agency reportedly decided not to return it, and a legal battle ensued. This past December, a judge ruled that Carlson is “entitled to possession of the bag.” In February, a federal judge ordered the Johnson Space Center to return it to Carlson.

Carlson is the seller planning to auction it off in July, Reuters reports. She plans to donate a portion of the proceeds to charities such as the Immune Deficiency Foundation and the Bay Cliff Health Camp Children’s Therapy and Wellness Center, according to Sotheby’s, and to set up a scholarship for students studying speech pathology at Northern Michigan University, her alma mater.  

The bag will be the “star lot” of Sotheby’s inaugural space exploration auction on July 20, which is slated to include other items from the American and Soviet space programs. Prospective buyers also will be able to bid on Collins’ Apollo 11 emblem signed by the crew (expected to fetch $40,000-$60,000); a large color photograph taken by Armstrong of Aldrin during their moon walk, signed by Aldrin (expected to fetch $3,000-$5,000); the official English-language report on Yuri Gagarin’s first human flight in space, signed by Gagarin (expected to fetch $50,000-$80,000); and other items.