In 2017, Nancy Lee Carlson of Illinois auctioned off a genuine Apollo 11 lunar sample bag for $1.8 million dollars. That’s a good score given she purchased the bag for $995, but she was expecting as much as $4 million. The reason for the low value, she says, is that NASA damaged the bag—and she’s now suing the space agency to that effect.
This isn’t Carlson’s first rodeo with NASA. As Robert Pearlman of CollectSPACE reports, this is her second lawsuit directed at the space agency, the first being a suit that gained Carlson possession, or rather re-possession, of the lunar sample bag, which once held Moon rocks collected by Neil Armstrong during the Apollo 11 mission. Pearlman explains how Carlson originally came to possess the historic artifact, how NASA took possession of it, and how she won it back:
Carlson originally purchased the 11.5-inch-long (29-centimeter) “lunar sample return bag” for $995 in February 2015, at an auction held on behalf of the U.S. Marshals Service in Texas. Unaware of the bag’s history other than that it had been forfeited by a museum curator indicted for the theft of other space artifacts and that it was described by the Marshals as having been flown on an Apollo mission, Carlson sought the help of Ziegler at the Johnson Space Center in Houston to further identify the bag’s provenance.
After testing the material stains inside the bag, a process that may have resulted in the bag’s fabric being torn, Ziegler determined that the trace dust was from Tranquility Base, the landing site of the Apollo 11 first moon landing mission. The zippered pouch was subsequently identified as having been used to prevent contamination of an initial contingency lunar sample by Neil Armstrong during the early minutes of his 1969 moon walk.
Without record of the artifact having been released from NASA property, Zieger, representing the space agency, refused Carlson’s repeated requests for the bag’s return.
With the space agency refusing to return the bag, Carlson filed two lawsuits against NASA, one in Texas and one in Kansas. In February 2016, a Kansas judge ruled that the U.S. government mistakenly sold the bag at auction, and Carlson, a “good faith purchaser,” was subsequently “entitled possession of the bag.” On July 20, 2017, the bag was sold at a Sotheby’s auction, earning Carlson a cool $1,812,500—but Sotheby’s expected the bag to sell for between $2 to $4 million.
Carlson’s new lawsuit alleges that NASA damaged the bag while in its possession, resulting in the “diminished” fair market value of the item, according to court documents filed against the U.S. government, NASA, and NASA Apollo 11 curator Ryan Ziegler on January 18, and as reported by CollectSPACE. The incident has allegedly caused “humiliation, embarrassment, emotional stress and anxiety,” for Carlson who, in addition to seeking financial recompense for lost earnings and her legal expenses, is seeking a “fair” amount for her emotional distress.
Not content to stop there, the lawsuit is asking for the return of lunar materials reportedly “enmeshed” in the fibers of the bag. Either that, or the “value of the removed samples,” according to court documents.
This is an extraordinary case on a number of levels. That a private citizen was able to accidentally gain access to such a precious item is a stunning revelation on its own, but the second lawsuit, in which Carlson is suing NASA for damaging its former property, is equally astonishing. Also, given that Carlson pocketed nearly $2 million for a historic relic that arguably doesn’t belong to her, and instead belongs to the public trust, her quest for even more money is undeniably distasteful.
That said, the judge in this case will have their hands full. The question of who owns the lunar material “enmeshed” in the bag will be particularly challenging, and it’s somewhat reminiscent of a current case in which a woman is claiming ownership of a vial of moon dust given to her by Neil Armstrong. NASA understandably doesn’t like to part ways with its lunar materials, but as precedent has already shown, it’s not always in control of its own stuff.