The Price of Moon Dust

Bag of moon dust sells for $1.8 million
Posted: Jul 20, 2017 6:29 PM PDT
NEW YORK (AP) — A bag containing traces of moon dust has sold at auction for $1.8 million.The sale at Sotheby’s on Thursday was surrounded by some fallout from a galactic court battle.  The collection bag was used by astronaut Neil Armstrong during the first manned mission to the moon in 1969.  But the artifact from the Apollo 11 mission was misidentified and sold at an online government auction. NASA fought to get it back. In December, a federal judge ruled that it legally belonged to a Chicago-area woman who bought it in 2015 for $995.
Sotheby’s declined to identify the buyer who won the bag.

Nancy Ann Carlson bought trouble in a 12×8.5 inch bag. The bag was square, zippered, and printed with the words: LUNAR SAMPLE RETURN. Did it arrive one morning in a simple box while she was sipping her tea? Did she peer at it over her Earl Grey, guessing that it might be famous dust? Did she open it and let some of the fine silt sift over her fingers? Or did she keep it closed, prudently considering contamination or other scientific concerns, only conjuring the moon dust in her mind?

The surface of the moon is pockmarked with millions of meteor strikes. The atmosphere of the moon is much thinner than that of the earth (10 to the 13th if I counted zeros correctly), so the moon is subject to constant bombardment from full sized space objects. A bag full of such dust would be guaranteed cosmic, guaranteed starstuff. Touching moon dust would be as close as you could get to touching the stars. (Metaphorically! Yes, I know stars are mostly energy, plasma, hydrogen atoms — but somewhere in there is “stuff” which makes it “starstuff.”)

How this bag came from the moon into Carlson’s possession and, thus, into a swirl of trouble is a curious story.

The Backstory
There was an auction. There was a lawsuit. There was another auction, and a clever buyer, and a thief. But we must go back further back.

About four billion years ago, a giant body nicknamed Theia collided with the Earth and pieces broke off to form the orbiting body we know as … well, perhaps, that’s too far back.

Forty-eight years ago, last Monday, a rocket ship drifted close to the moon. An insect-like packet of medal shot out of its side and landed on our nearest celestial neighbor in a puff of stuff, a $1.8 million wisp of silt. The hatch opened and a ladder was extended. Feet placed carefully, one…two…three…four and a small hop. More of the $1.8 million stuff drifted up.

TV image of Armstrong landing on the moon, from

At some point, after the famous hop and those famous words, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” sample holders were gathered and dust scooped up for analysis. The Apollo astronauts brought back 800 pounds of the stuff over their six missions. NASA had plenty to study, shifted from sample holders into bags and bags and bags.

The Space Enthusiast; the Thief
Enter one Max Ary who, according to his own current LinkedIn entry, started work at a planetarium while getting a Physical Science degree at Wichita State University. After graduation, he became further interested in space exploration and in 1976 helped turn the small planetarium into a small Kansas museum called the Cosmosphere and Space Center.  Over the next 26 years — you could say his life’s work — the museum grew to a staff of 70 with 2.5 acres of 13,000 spaceflight artifacts.

Over time, the museum and Ary acquired everything from World War II missiles to bits and pieces from the Mercury and Soyuz missions. They self-report having the largest collection of Russian space items in America. New acquisitions were stored in warehouses, storage sheds, and Ary’s basement. Artifacts, at times, were mixed together. NASA was focused on fending off budget cuts to the space program, not cataloguing stuff.

Max Ary, photo on taken by Jeff Tuttle, Wichita Eagle

Recordkeeping was lax both on NASA and the museum’s side. That is well established. Lax at NASA, lax at the Cosmosphere, and lax in Max Ary’s garage and basement. At some point in 2003, a routine audit “discovered” hundreds of artifacts were missing.  Ary expressed surprise and innocence; he maintains that innocence to this day.  Federal investigators — NASA turns out to have federal investigators — found some of the items in questionable places like in Ary’s safety deposit box and on a list of things sold to a collector sites where the money went to a Mr. Max Ary.

It happens in PTAs and nonprofit groups all the time; copious excuses pour from the bookkeeper or the volunteer treasurer who absconded with the funds. I just needed to borrow the money for a little while. I got into a jam and I knew I would put it back as soon as my situation got better. I was always spending my own money and giving all that volunteer time for free, so really I was just paying myself back…  The depositions and the legal notes aren’t freely available, but we can all imagine what was said.

The Trial
Ary was indicted on nineteen counts of theft, fraud, money laundering, and interstate trafficking in stolen goods. The jury convicted him on twelve counts. He appealed, but ultimately lost the appeal and in 2006, Max Ary, planetarium lover and artifact expert, went to prison for three years.

It’s a little hard to imagine how items that NASA says are absolutely illegal and impossible to sell on the open market got sold on the open market. Is eBay considered a black market? Could you buy moon dust on eBay? Apparently, you can…certainly for $1,800 as of two days ago.

The Auction
After the trial, after the appeal, the exhibits were grouped together and somehow, someway, recordkeeping was still a little lax. A square little bag clearly emblazoned LUNAR SAMPLE was put up for auction by the U.S. Marshal service. This also gets a little sketchy. NASA maintains that all moon dust belongs to them… except for samples they’ve loaned out or given to people like “dignitaries.” Yet, as NPR put it, the auction seemed at the time to be pretty straightforward:

Nancy Carlson [a lawyer and another space enthusiast from] Inverness, Ill., saw the listing. The U.S. Marshal’s Office described the bag as a “flown zippered lunar sample return bag with lunar dust. 11.5 [inches]. Tear at Center. Flown Mission Unknown,” the Houston Chronicle reports.

In a 2014 online auction, the suggested bid was $20,000, but no one wanted the bag. A year later, Carlson won it for $995., “Moon Dust Bag Accidentally in Private Hands”

After buying it, Carlson sent it to NASA for analysis.  Then, NASA didn’t want to give it back.

It turned out to be Neil Armstrong moon dust. It turned out to be from Apollo 11. All that lax record-keeping, this mission, that mission, 800 pounds all together, some given to dignitaries, some stuck in coffee cans and hustled out to be sold in eBay, who knows? NASA said for certain, it was historic moon dust.

The Lawsuit
NASA sued to get it back, saying that “This artifact was never meant to be owned by an individual. … We believe (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.”

There are bags of moon dust sitting around in little museums all over the place. There are rocks out on eBay, and fine grains of dust embedded in plastic display views in the palaces and houses of the wealthy and other “dignitaries” around the world. This particular bag of moon dust was offered for sale by an arm of the government. How was Carlson to know that when the U.S. Marshals auction off a bag called LUNAR SAMPLE, any lunar sample inside of it was forbidden for purchase? That was, more or less, her argument. After a year long trial in federal court, the judge agreed.

Auction II, the Sequel
In March, the federal judge ordered NASA to turn the bag back over to Carlson. By that point, torn in half, unzipped, it wouldn’t strike you as especially exciting. But moon dust, according to NASA, is especially sticky. Because it has virtually no water, it’s full of “pointy microscope particles” (as the Chicago Tribune put it) which are hard to unstick. NASA found them in the bag and they are likely still there.

In an auction by Sotheby’s last week, the bag fetched $1.8 million. Estimates before the auction speculated it might be worth multiple millions, but such a fanciful tale would lead to all sorts of crazy thoughts. If you’re Carlson, you reaped a $1.8 million benefit, but only after a year of accusation, painful legal wrangling, and heartache. (The selling price was $2.2 million, but Sotheby’s took their cut.)

Yet, there are so many unanswered questions.

What was going through Carlson’s mind when she saw the bag? If LUNAR SAMPLES are supposed to belong to the American public, then how could the Marshal’s office let it be auctioned? How did NASA know with certainty that it was Apollo 11 moon dust —  valuable, historic Neil Armstrong moon dust — and not just, say, ordinary oldApollo 15 Dave Scott moon dust. Was it the bag or was it the dust?

What was going through Max Ary’s mind when he started selling off the bits and pieces of his life’s work? And who called for the audit? I would have liked to be in the room “when that happened,” that board room for the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center when someone suggested an audit might be a good idea.

Why is a bag of moon dust worth $1.8 million? Even when the bag has a rip in it?

Max Ary could not be reached for comment about the sale, although he is now — after a three year hiatus in his Linked In resume — the Director of the Thomas P. Stafford Air & Space Museum at Wichita State University. Nancy Carlson could not be reached for comment, although she told the press that she plans to donate the auction proceeds to charitable causes. NASA could not be reached for comment.

The Man in the Moon could not be reached for comment.



Today’s Daily Post word: tea

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