Once nearly thrown out with the trash, a bag that Neil Armstrong used to collect the first ever samples of the moon goes on sale in New York next week, valued at $2-4 million. Traces of moon dust and small rock are embedded in what is the only artifact from the Apollo 11 mission and in private hands, says Sotheby's, who is organizing the sale on July 20, the 48th anniversary of the first moon landing in 1969.
"It's a tremendously rare thing," says Cassandra Hatton, vice president and senior specialist in charge of the sale. "Something that was used by the first man, on the first mission to collect the first samples, it's remarkable."
Armstrong collected dust and rock fragments from five different locations on the lunar surface. Given its then unknown nature, the decontamination bag was used to minimize any potential harm the samples might pose. After Apollo 11 returned to Earth, nearly all the equipment from the mission was sent to the Smithsonian, the world's largest museum.
An inventory error however left the sample bag languishing in a box at the Johnson Space Center. Staff were about to throw it out before offering it to a collector who ran a space museum in Kansas, and kept it unaware of its provenance. When the collector was later convicted of theft, fraud and money laundering, the FBI seized the box from his garage to auction it off for restitution along with other assets.
The bag was offered four times for sale, before an Illinois lawyer finally snapped it up in 2015 for a winning bid of $995. Noticing dark smudges inside, she sent it to NASA for testing, which confirmed in 2016 that it was indeed moon dust from the Apollo 11 landing site, and that it was the decontamination bag listed in the Apollo 11 stowage list.
A legal battle ensued over ownership, which ended in a federal judge ordering NASA to return the bag to the lawyer -- who is now offering it for sale. The ruling makes it the only Apollo 11 artifact allowed in private hands.
Hatton described holding it as "one of those moments where your heart's racing and your hands are shaking. It's the closest I'll ever come to shaking hands with Neil Armstrong or being able to walk on the moon."
The bag, made of the same fire-retardant material as space suits and with a tear underneath, is the star lot in a space exploration sale.
Another highlight is the Apollo 13 flight plan, valued at $30-40,000, which records actions taken by the crew, including after the explosion that led to the famed "Houston, we've had a problem" call. Apollo 13 was supposed to be the third US moon landing attempt. But an oxygen tank exploded two days after its April 1970 launch, badly damaging the spacecraft some 200,000 miles from Earth.