The moon's surface on the Apollo 11 mission.
The moon’s surface on the Apollo 11 mission. NASA/Apollo 11/Public Domain

A dusty white bag is up for auction at Sotheby’s in July, and it’s expected to sell for around $4 million. The dust’s origins put that price tag in perspective: It comes from the moon. Specifically, the dust was left behind after Neil Armstrong used it to carry moon rocks collected during the Apollo 11 mission in 1969. Nancy Lee Carlson paid $995 the bag in 2015 and is likely to get quite the return on her investment.

Carlson’s payday has not been without its obstacles, though. After she bought the bag at a government auction, she sent it to NASA so they could verify that it really contains moon dust from the mission. NASA confirmed the origin of the bag and dust, but they also claimed ownership and refused to return it to Carlson.

Even after it returned from the moon, the bag has had quite the journey on Earth. NASA originally owned the bag, but it disappeared from a Kansas space museum in the early 2000s. The director of that museum, Max Ary, was eventually convicted of theft, and the federal government allowed the sale of a few of the stolen artifacts to pay for his restitution. The bag was mistaken for one that had been on Apollo 17 and ended up in the auction where Carlson purchased it.

Carlson sued to get the bag back, and came out on top after a year of fighting in court. Now it’s going on the auction block again, on the 48th anniversary of the first Apollo moon landing. Only NASA is allowed to own parts of the moon, so the chance to buy the bag, and more importantly the tiny flecks of moon dust inside, is a unique opportunity.