The bizarre drama behind a pinch of moon dust that just sold for $500,000

The bizarre drama behind a pinch of moon dust that just sold for $500,000

by Sue Jones
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Published April 13, 2022

11 min read

On the precipice of humankind’s first step on the moon, Neil Armstrong stood on the lunar module’s ladder and described the ground’s peculiar texture. “It’s almost like a powder,” he told the Apollo Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas.

Ten minutes later, he scooped up a mound of this lunar dust—the first sample ever collected from the surface of another world. Now, more than 50 years later, a pinch of that dust is going to a new owner: An anonymous buyer who paid just over $500,000 at auction to own a piece of history.

NASA has long maintained that the lunar rocks and dust collected during the Apollo missions are government property that’s not allowed to be owned by private citizens. The space agency has gone to great lengths to recover any stray lunar materials, including a sting operation in 2011 that seized—from a 74-year-old woman in a Denny’s Restaurant—a rice-size moon rock embedded in a paperweight.

The lunar dust that sold today is a rare exception to the rule, a quirk due in part to a combination of fraud, mistaken identity, and a series of legal disputes.

“It’s a unique situation,” says Adam Stackhouse, a specialist at Bonhams.

Scientists have expressed mixed emotions about the auction. NASA has analyzed these dust samples, and researchers have also studied the other fractions of the larger lunar sample. But there’s always the possibility to learn more. “Lunar samples are so, so precious,” says Sara Mazrouei, a planetary scientist and educational developer at Ryerson University in Ontario.

Space law experts, on the other hand, are excited by what this sale might mean for future trade in extraterrestrial materials, such as metals mined from asteroids. “It’s one more step in this march toward commercializing natural resources from outer space,” says Mark Sundahl, an expert in international space law at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law in Ohio.

Sticky dust

The lunar dust in question came to Earth thanks to a peculiar property: It’s sticky.

On the airless moon, solar wind constantly blasts the surface, imparting an electrostatic charge to the fine-grained dust, also called regolith. This charge causes lunar regolith to stick to everything—the astronauts’ boots, gloves, suits, cords, tools, and more.

“Right away, the astronauts noticed how sticky the regolith was,” says Nicolle Zellner, a planetary scientist at Albion College. The clingy dust is also jagged and abrasive, and it quickly proved problematic during the Apollo missions, clogging equipment, wearing down suits, and fouling up landers. Astronauts took to banging their boots on the ladder at the entrance of the lunar module to kick off as much dust as possible after ventures to the surface.

The dust’s stickiness meant that when Armstrong scooped up the first sample in a Teflon bag, fine grains coated the bag’s exterior. For transport to Earth, the entire bag was itself stowed inside a zip-top pouch stamped with the words “Lunar Sample Return” in blocky capital letters. The grains in the recent sale were pulled from the woven fabric inside this protective pouch.

Seeing the bag’s dust today, “you just feel like you’re close to that moment,” Stackhouse says. “It’s like a time machine in a way.”

Sticky fingers

The dust’s route to the auction block was circuitous. Several decades ago, NASA loaned the outer sample bag along with other artifacts to the Cosmosphere space museum in Hutchinson, Kansas. At some unknown point, the bag disappeared.

After the museum’s director, Max Ary, left in 2002, the staff began to investigate several missing items. They discovered that Ary had been selling museum artifacts alongside his personal collection and pocketing the profits. He was sentenced to three years in prison and fined $132,000 on convictions of fraud, theft, and money laundering.

A federal search of Ary’s property turned up additional artifacts. Among the many treasures was the lunar sample return bag, but because of a mix-up in catalog numbers, officials didn’t realize the bag’s significance at the time. The U.S. Marshals Service sold it in an online auction of Ary’s seized space collection to help pay for his fines.

Nancy Lee Carlson of Inverness, Illinois, won the white pouch—and the dust embedded within its fibers—for just $995. She sent the bag to NASA’s Johnson Space Center to verify its authenticity and was shocked at their answer: Not only was the bag authentic, but the dust inside matched the characteristics and composition of the first moon sample returned by the Apollo 11 crew.

In a twist, NASA then refused to give the bag back, arguing it was a national treasure. “This artifact was never meant to be owned by an individual,” NASA spokesperson William Jeffs said in a 2017 statement. It not only has scientific value, he said, but it also “represents the culmination of a massive national effort involving a generation of Americans.”

To the agency’s chagrin, Carlson sued for its return, and she won. She then auctioned off the bag in 2017 for $1.8 million. NASA has not responded to multiple requests for comment on the latest auction.

Two years later, Carlson sued NASA again, this time for damaging the bag during the inspection and holding on to some dust from its insides. NASA scientists had used a piece of carbon tape to nab some of the embedded lunar dust, which was mounted on small aluminum stubs for analysis, and they had kept those samples. According to Carlson, the loss had prevented her from selling the bag for its originally estimated value.

The agency eventually settled with Carlson, returning five out of the six stubs with the dust. Those are the samples that just sold at Bonhams.

The lunar vault

Beyond the legal drama, lunar experts are divided about the scientific impacts of today’s sale.

“The obligatory response is that every sample is important and can tell you something new,” says Peter James, a planetary geophysicist at Baylor University in Texas. But the auctioned samples are just a small fraction of the 842 pounds of lunar material astronauts ferried back to Earth over the course of six Apollo missions between 1969 and 1972. Because this sample was already analyzed by NASA and is similar to the much larger sample still available for study, James doesn’t see the sale as a huge loss for scientists.

The counterpoint is that it’s been 50 years since anyone brought back a fresh piece of the moon, and every bit that has been up for analysis has yielded more information about lunar history and geology. Analysis of the Apollo moon rocks helped scientists piece together the most likely theory for the moon’s origins: A Mars-size object collided with infant Earth and ejected a cloud of debris that eventually cooled and coalesced into our only natural satellite.

Study of the Apollo samples also revealed that the moon has a surprising amount of water. Initial analysis in the late 1960s and early 1970s overlooked faint traces of water locked in the rocks. But orbiting spacecraft spotted hints of lunar water—a find later confirmed by re-analysis of Apollo rocks using ultra-sensitive instruments. Such watery reserves are key to humans returning to the moon and beyond since they will potentially help future space travelers reduce the load they need to bring from Earth.

Scientists are still studying the Apollo rocks today. Some of the samples were placed in long-term storage “so that scientists not yet born can use instruments not yet developed to answer questions not yet asked,” NASA astrochemist Jamie Elsila Cook told National Geographic in 2019. One such cache from 1972 was just opened in March in hopes of informing plans for the Artemis missions, NASA’s upcoming attempt to send humans back to the moon.

Mazrouei stresses the extensive work researchers undertake writing proposals with the hope of getting just a tiny bit of lunar dust for study. “So to see them be auctioned off … has been a little off-putting,” she says.

But she sees a small glimmer of hope in what the sale might mean for accessibility of lunar samples for educational purposes. “Maybe this will open the door to future samples being available beyond this elite group of scientists,” she says.

Mining the skies

Space lawyers view the sale through a slightly different lens. As many countries gear up for future missions to the moon and beyond, extraction and use of resources from space may soon become a reality. Such activities fall under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, an international agreement that lays the foundation of modern space law.

While the treaty provides some guidance for future activity, such as banning military maneuvers and preventing anyone from claiming ownership of other worlds, there are still many gaps. For one, “they did not envision space resource utilization,” says Christopher Johnson, space law advisor at the Secure World Foundation and adjunct professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Over the years some countries, including the U.S. and the United Arab Emirates, have passed laws that give citizens ownership over resources they extract from celestial bodies. The latest sale further cements the legality of owning, using, and reselling space resources, he says.

Cleveland-Marshall’s Sundahl adds that any case that sparks conversations in the general public about the extraction and sale of lunar resources can be helpful; many debates about balancing public and private interests lay ahead as we wade into the waters of celestial mining.

“We’re just at the very beginning of this,” Sundahl says.

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