NASA and federal prosecutors are attempting to recover the bag used by Apollo 11 astronauts to collect Moon samples back in 1969 that they accidentally sold at an auction last year.
Officials say the bag was sold due to a clerical error that marked two lunar bags, one from Apollo 17 and the other from Apollo 11, with the same inventory number - an error that was brought to their attention when the new owner of the Apollo 11 bag sent it back to NASA for authentication.
NASA decided to keep it, and right now, the US space agency and federal prosecutors are working together to ensure the bag – which they're calling a "national treasure" – stays at NASA. But the current owner – Nancy Carlson from Illinois – claims that she bought it fair and square, which means a legal battle is now taking shape.
The funny thing is that this isn’t the first time the Apollo 11 lunar bag has been the subject of controversy. Back in 2005, Max Ary – the founder and director of the Kansas Cosmophere and Space Centre – was found guilty of stealing and auctioning off space artefacts that NASA had loaned his institution for display purposes.
During Ary’s investigation two years earlier, NASA officials found the Apollo 11 lunar bag inside his garage along with many other artefacts that he was planning to sell.
Now, NASA hopes to talk with the same federal judge that helped them recover the bag from Ary to get it back from Carlson, who bought it last year for US$995.
Since Carlson really did buy the bag from an actual government auction and didn’t commit any sort of crime, she has started her own lawsuit against NASA to give it back.
Given the priceless nature of the bag and the fact that it still has lunar debris embedded inside it, NASA is hoping that the federal judge will allow them to refund Carlson’s money and keep it at NASA, where they will hopefully keep a better eye on it, because how many times can one organisation lose the same bag?
It seems weird, but space artefacts are pretty notorious for wandering off. Last year, Neil Armstrong’s widow Carol found a white bag inside her late husband’s closet that was filled with Apollo artefacts, including the camera used on the lunar surface to capture Armstrong taking his first steps, and saying the famous "One small step for man" line.
Armstrong was supposed to leave those artefacts inside the lunar module, which remains on the Moon, but instead, he and his fellow astronauts brought back keepsakes from the mission, saying they were trash.
Two months after officials were alerted of Armstrong’s secret stash, another artefact turned up when a scrap dealer in Tennessee found a missing lunar rover prototype known as the Brown Engineering Local Scientific Survey Module (Brown LSSM), which NASA sold 50 years ago and lost track of.
It’s hard to say what will come of the current case between NASA and Carlson, though it all lies with the federal judge, who has already helped the space agency out once before. Only time will tell, but if this news should teach us anything, it’s that there are space artefacts all over the place if we keep our eyes open.