On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the moon. To mark the anniversary this week, the international luxury auction company Sotheby's is selling a dust-stained Apollo 11 Lunar Sample Return Bag that was used to carry moon rocks back to Earth. Although Sotheby's has sold Apollo-era gear before, the return bag auction is expected to fetch a price upwards of $4 million, a record for space memorabilia.
There's no doubt that owning this little piece of space history would be extremely cool. But not everyone is happy about the auction, particularly For All Moonkind, a nonprofit seeking to establish lunar landing sites and moon mission memorabilia as world heritage items.
"We formed For All Moonkind with a mission to ensure the Apollo landing sites be recognized by the United Nations for their outstanding value to humanity and protected for posterity," Michelle Hanlon, a space lawyer and co-founder of the organization, said in a statement. "The decision by Nancy Lee Carlson [the bag's original owner] and Sotheby's to auction off an Apollo 11 Lunar Sample Return Decontamination Bag is a sobering wake-up call."
The lunar sample bag is just one item that is listed as part of today's Space Exploration auction at Sotheby's, but according to Hanlon, these artifacts of the space race belong to the public, not private collectors.
"The bag belongs in a museum, so the entire world can share in and celebrate the universal human achievement it represents," Hanlon said.
Although the ownership and sale of space race relics have been the subject of several lawsuits disputes over the years, the lunar sample bag being auctioned at Sotheby's is entirely legal. The bag had come into Carlson's possession in 2015, after the US Marshals Service had mistakenly sold it. Although NASA petitioned to recover the bag, the courts ruled in Carlson's favor and she was allowed to keep the moon-dusted cloth pouch.
Nevertheless, Hanlon and her colleagues want to set a precedent to make sure that similar mistakes don't happen in the future, which could put the material history of the Apollo missions at risk.
While space memorabilia is a part of For All Moonkind's mission, its main focus is on establishing the landing sites from the six crewed missions to the moon as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This would mean that the landing sites would be protected from intentional or accidental human intrusion as a way of preserving the sites for posterity.
The last human left the moon in 1972, but in the next decade, there are a number of efforts that are seeking to establish a human and robotic presence on the moon. Without sufficient protections, For All Moonkind worries that these missions could end up unintentionally destroying lunar history, such as Buzz Aldrin's famous boot print that still adorns the lunar surface.
There are over 1,000 heritage sites currently on UNESCO's list, but the lunar landing areas would be the first sites not on terra firma. It's unclear whether UNESCO's rules for world heritage sites can be applied to off-Earth locations or whether a separate heritage treatise for space will need to be established, but For All Moonkind is determined to find out.
"Our effort is all about progress," Hanlon said. "We look forward to humanity's return to the Moon. However, if we allow our past to be sold, especially for personal gain, we set a dangerous precedent for potential Moon scavengers and we lay a very weak foundation for our collective future."
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