Saturday, May 21, 2022

NASA Moon Dust Collected by Neil Armstrong Is Up for Auction

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A sample of lunar dust collected by Neil Armstrong during the Apollo 11 mission will go under the hammer next month in New York. As part of a Bonhams auction of rare space history-related artifacts, the lunar monster is expected to fetch about $1 million. And thanks to an unusual series of events, this will be the first time NASA-verified lunar dust has been sold legally.

The space agency’s authentication may sound appropriate for an Apollo artifact, but moon dust is no ordinary artifact. NASA has long claimed it is the sole legal owner of lunar dust, and it has been embroiled in disputes over the past few decades with people who somehow managed to get their hands on real samples from the Apollo program. NASA often wins these battles. However, the lunar dust put up for sale in Bonhams has repeatedly slipped out of government hands and now the space agency can’t get it back.

The historic auction is also a reminder that NASA is not only losing control of its own lunar dust, but to some extent the moon itself. As the agency races to launch the Artemis program, a series of missions to the moon that aim to retrieve where Apollo left off, other countries have plans of their own for lunar excavations. While collecting more recent lunar samples may be vital to scientific research, they will not necessarily have the same historical significance as the dust collected when mankind first set foot on the moon.

“This represents something that has really captivated the world,” Adam Stackhouse, the specialist at Bonhams who oversees the upcoming space auction, told Recode. “These other missions? It’s not the same. It’s not that exciting for people.”

Since the Apollo missions brought back its first samples, lunar dust has become a hot item. Between 1969 and 1972, NASA about 2,200 samples of rocks, core, pebbles, sand and dust from the moon, most of which are the desk held to study† Through a range of circumstances ranging from coincidence to blatant theft, however, a few individuals have gotten their hands on NASA’s lunar dust and some have even tried to sell it. NASA has maintained that these people are illegally inside possession of agency property and over the years, the government has expanded and, to timebizarre stabbing operations to reclaim his moon monsters. In 2011, an investigation led officials to a Denny’s in Riverside, California, where they encountered a 74-year-old woman attempting a “Fleck” of moon rock that she claimed Neil Armstrong gave her husband in the 1970s.

But one example has escaped NASA: the lunar dust now for sale at Bonhams. The story of how the agency lost it begins when Armstrong first landed on the moon, collected a few globules of dust, and stored the dust in a emergency bag. NASA never really had a specific plan for this bag, and long after Armstrong returned to Earth, it was… worth $15 and sent for custody at the Cosmosphere space museum in Kansas. That transfer would have been mundane, save for the fact that the museum’s director, Max Ary, was auctioning off artifacts that NASA had given to the Cosmosphere. on loan† When Ary was finally caught and… convicted in 2005The US Marshals Service has seized hundreds of stolen space artifacts, including Armstrong’s bag of space dust.

The US Marshals Service eventually sold Ary’s collection at an online auction, and a geology enthusiast named Nancy Lee Carlson paid $995 for many including the bag, an Apollo command module headrest, and a launch key for the Soviet Soyuz T-14 spacecraft. Carlson suspected that the bag of moon dust was worth much more. To confirm that the artifact was genuine, Carlson sent the bag to… NASA for testing in 2015† The space agency not only determined that the bag was real, but also that it belonged to the government. Carlson successfully sued NASA to get the bag back – a judge ruled that she bought it legally – and sold it for $1.8 million at Sotheby’s in 2017. But the bag had been cleaned, leaving a few left traces of moon dust owned by NASA.

The moon dust will be auctioned next month.

During testing, NASA had used small pieces of carbon tape to collect the traces of lunar dust from the bag, then attached that tape to a series of small aluminum discs, which the agency decided to hold. Carlson then has sued NASA again, accusing the agency of not only damaging the bag while inspecting it, but also taking in some of the moon dust. NASA eventually settled and returned nearly all of the lunar dust it had tested returned to Carlson. Now she’s listed the moondust-covered discs at Bonhams, who estimate they can sell for between $800,000 and $1.2 million.

If you don’t make the winning bid, there are some alternatives. You could try to buy the lunar dust collected by the Soviet space program, although there is reportedly less than a pound of it worldwideand monsters tend to sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction† The Chinese space agency also has a few kilos of moon rocks and dust that it gathered with a robber to whom it sent the moon in 2020, although this monster is unlikely to go on sale anytime soon. It might be easier to buy a piece of one moon meteorite instead, which, as the name implies, comes from a moon rock that fell to Earth at some point. And then there’s always the “moon dust” which is for sale all over the internet, which — unless it’s from a verified meteorite — almost certainly isn’t real.

At the same time, the sale of moon dust raises thorny questions about who should own pieces of space in the first place. Astronauts who participated in the American early space programs have fought for the right to keep — and sell — artifacts they held onto after their missions, but NASA has since gotten a lot stricter about preserving the stuff it uses or finds in space. There is also a growing debate about whether it is right for one person, or one government, to own something of importance to all of humanity and arguably part of the moon’s natural environment.

“In the Cold War, it was a major prestige mission. It was a lot about the excitement of having something of another planetary body,” explains Namrata Goswami, the author of Scramble for the Skies: The Great Power Competition to Control the Resources of 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 samples of moon dust. Several countries, including: China and Russia have already launched rovers onto the lunar surface, and even more have expressed an interest in eventually mining the moon for its natural resources. Among which rare metals that can be used to build spacecraft or electronicsas well as helium-3, a rare isotope that used in nuclear fusion† The United States Could Get Involved In This Moon Gold Rush, Too: NASA Has Already Done It several recruited companies to help the space agency excavate lunar soil. Overall, by some estimates, these resources could be worth it in the trillions, and make missions to the moon a more mundane part of our lives.

We are still years away from lunar mining. But if and when it does happen, $1 million for lunar dust might seem like an exorbitant price. Future lunar miners will eventually figure out what the Apollo-era astronauts have already learned: Despite its exciting origins, moon dust burns your eyes, sticks to your lunar boots and smells like the air after July 4.

This story was first published in the Recode newsletter. Register here so you don’t miss the next one!

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