A sample of lunar dust collected by Neil Armstrong during the Apollo 11 mission is going up for auction in New York next month. As part of a Bonhams auction of rare artifacts related to space history, the lunar sample is expected to fetch around $1 million. And thanks to a series of unusual events, this will be the first time NASA-verified moondust has been legally sold.
Space agency authentication may sound appropriate for an Apollo artifact, but moondust is no ordinary artifact. NASA has long claimed that it is the sole legal owner of moondust, and has spent the last few decades embroiled in disputes with people who somehow managed to obtain genuine samples from the Apollo program. NASA often wins these fights. However, the moondust for sale at Bonhams has repeatedly slipped out of government hands and is now unable to be recovered by the space agency.
The historic auction also serves as a reminder that NASA is not only losing control over its own moondust, but to some degree, the moon itself. As the agency races to launch the Artemis program, a series of missions to the moon that aim to pick up where Apollo left off, other countries have plans for their own lunar excavation efforts. While the collection of more recent lunar samples could be critical to scientific research, they won’t necessarily have the same historical significance as the dust collected when humanity first walked on the moon.
“This represents something that really wowed the world,” Adam Stackhouse, the Bonhams specialist overseeing the upcoming space auction, told Recode. “These other missions? Is not the same. It’s not that exciting for people.”
Ever since the Apollo missions returned the first samples, moondust has become something of a hot commodity. Between 1969 and 1972, NASA collected about 2,200 samples of rocks, cores, pebbles, sand, and dust from the moon, most of which the agency kept to study. However, through a series of circumstances ranging from chance to outright theft, private individuals have gotten their hands on NASA’s moondust, and some have even tried to sell it. NASA has maintained that these people are illegally in possession of agency property, and over the years the government has deployed elaborate and sometimes bizarre covert operations to retrieve their lunar samples. In 2011, an investigation led officials to a Denny’s in Riverside, California, where they came across a 74-year-old woman trying to sell a “speck” of moon rock that she said Neil Armstrong gave her husband in the decade. from 1970.
But one sample has been left out of NASA’s hands: moondust now for sale at Bonhams. The saga of how the agency lost it begins when Armstrong first landed on the moon, scooped up a few spoonfuls of dust and stored the dust in a contingency bag. NASA never had a specific plan for this bag, and long after Armstrong returned to Earth, it was valued at $15 and sent for safekeeping to the Cosmosphere space museum in Kansas. That transfer would have been mundane, except for the fact that the museum’s director, Max Ary, was auctioning off artifacts NASA had loaned to the Cosmosphere. When Ary was finally caught and convicted in 2005, the US Marshals Service seized hundreds of stolen space artifacts, including Armstrong’s bag of space dust.
The US Marshals Service ended up selling Ary’s collection at an online auction, with a geology enthusiast named Nancy Lee Carlson paying $995 for a lot that included the bag, a headrest from an Apollo command module. and a launch key for the Soviet Soyuz T-. 14 spaceships. Carlson suspected that the bag of moondust was worth much more. To confirm that the artifact was real, Carlson sent the bag to NASA for testing in 2015. The space agency determined not only that the bag was genuine, but also that it belonged to the government. Carlson successfully sued NASA to get the bag back (a judge ruled he had purchased it legally) and sold it for $1.8 million at Sotheby’s in 2017. But the bag had been cleaned, leaving some traces of moondust on it. the hands of NASA.
During tests, NASA used small pieces of carbon tape to collect traces of moondust from the bag and then attached that tape to a series of small aluminum disks, which the agency decided to keep. Carlson then sued NASA again, accusing the agency of not only damaging the bag while inspecting it, but also taking some of the moondust inside. NASA eventually settled down and returned almost all of the moondust it had tested to Carlson. He has now listed the moondust-covered discs with Bonhams, which he estimates could fetch between $800,000 and $1.2 million.
If you fail to make the winning bid, there are some alternatives. You could try buying moondust collected by the Soviet space program, although there is reportedly less than a pound in the entire world, and samples tend to sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction. China’s space agency also has a few pounds of moon rocks and dust it collected with a rover it sent to the moon in 2020, though this sample is unlikely to go on sale anytime soon. Instead, it might be easier to buy a piece of a lunar meteorite which, as the name implies, comes from a moon rock that at some point fell to Earth. And then there’s always the “moon dust” that’s widely available to buy on the internet, which, unless it’s from a verified meteorite, is almost certainly not real.
At the same time, the moondust sale raises thorny questions about who should own the spaces in the first place. Astronauts who participated in early US space programs have fought for the right to keep and sell artifacts they kept after their missions, but NASA has since become much stricter about keeping the things it uses or find in space. There is also a growing debate about whether it is right for one person, or one government, to own something that is of importance to all of humanity, and is arguably part of the natural environment on the moon.
“In the Cold War, it was a highly prestigious mission. It was very much about the thrill of having something from another planetary body,” explains Namrata Goswami, the author of Scramble for the Skies: The great power contest to control the resources of outer space. “The discourse has changed.”
That’s largely because there’s a new international race back to the moon, but not just to explore it and collect moon rocks and moon dust samples. Several countries, including China and Russia, have already launched rovers to the lunar surface, and even more have expressed interest in eventually mining the moon for its natural resources. These include rare metals that could be used to build spacecraft or electronics, as well as helium-3, a rare isotope used in nuclear fusion. The United States could also get involved in this lunar gold rush: NASA has already recruited several companies to help the space agency excavate the lunar soil. Overall, these resources could be worth, by some estimates, in the trillions, and make missions to the moon a more everyday part of our lives.
We are still years away from lunar mining. But if it does happen, $1 million for moondust might seem like an exorbitant price. After all, future lunar miners will eventually discover what Apollo-era astronauts already learned: Despite its exciting origins, moondust burns eyes, sticks to moonboots, and smells like the sky after 4/4. July.
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